By Kelly McCutchen
It took more than 100 pages to debate the meaning of just one word. In the end, Georgia’s Supreme Court ruled in a 4-3 vote this week that most state-authorized charter schools do not meet the definition of the word “special.” Barring other actions, 15,000 public school students who faced uncertainty for months must now search for another school to attend before the new school year begins in August. One thing is certain: We cannot allow Georgia to be known as the state that shuts down quality public schools.
In addition to two schools for the deaf and one for the blind authorized by the Georgia Department of Education, the Georgia Charter Schools Commission has authorized 16 charter schools. (There are also more than 100 charter schools authorized by local school boards.) These schools cover the state, from Cherokee County in North Georgia, Calhoun County in southwest Georgia, Bulloch County in southeast Georgia, several in metro Atlanta and three virtual schools open to students throughout Georgia. Families are literally standing in line to attend: In one school more than 2,500 students applied for 995 openings.
These commission-authorized charter schools, like all charter schools, are public schools in every sense. They are publicly funded, cannot charge tuition, must administer all state-mandated tests and must admit any student who applies until enrollment is filled.
Georgia is one of 15 states that allow their State Department of Education or another public entity to authorize charter schools. Without this option, local school boards have monopoly power over decisions to provide students with public school options. Local control is important, but the ultimate form of local control should rest with parents: Sound public policy should ensure parents have the opportunity to pursue the best educational options for their children.
One size does not fit all. In fact, Georgia’s leadership in encouraging education innovation through the Georgia Charter Schools Commission and other pro-charter laws was a critical factor in winning the Race to the Top grant from the Obama Administration.
Limiting the ability to authorize schools is an industrial-age policy developed when most schools were very similar and limits on transportation and technology made school choice impractical. The digital age creates options that few could have imagined. Virtual schools, for example, use technology to connect certified Georgia teachers to students anywhere in the state.
Many education leaders recognize the movement to “digital learning” as a tremendous new opportunity. One exciting possibility is the combination of face-to-face traditional teaching and digital content in “blended” or “hybrid” schools. The “any time, any place” capability of virtual schools also provides students with flexible alternatives to dropping out of school.
The ability to obtain a statewide charter avoids the impractical requirement for virtual schools – with students in nearly every county – to endure a separate, lengthy approval process in each of Georgia’s 180 school systems. The Supreme Court ruling could move Georgia from a leader in digital learning to the back of the pack very quickly.
Where do we go from here? Representatives from local school systems were quick to say this lawsuit was not about charter schools, but about local control. Local school boards can prove this by fast tracking approval of these schools as local charter schools. Meanwhile, the Governor and General Assembly should create a new funding mechanism so full funding can follow the many children who have crossed school system lines to attend these charter schools. Finally, the court should stay this ruling or otherwise delay the effects until the General Assembly and Georgia citizens are allowed the opportunity to amend the Georgia Constitution, clarifying the State’s authority to authorize public schools.
The Supreme Court’s ruling was a direct blow to educational and economic opportunity for many Georgia students and families. In just three years, the Georgia Charter School Commission succeeded in destroying the artificial geographic barriers to quality public education. Whether it was young, predominantly minority girls crossing district lines to attend Ivy Preparatory Academy in Gwinnett County or rural students seeking high quality options through statewide virtual schools, thousands of families embraced the choice to better their education and their lives. Georgia can ill afford to put up more barriers between our children and a good education.
Kelly McCutchen is president of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation, an independent think tank that proposes practical, market-oriented approaches to public policy to improve the lives of Georgians. Nothing written here is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Foundation or as an attempt to aid or hinder the passage of any bill before the U.S. Congress or the Georgia Legislature.
(c) Georgia Public Policy Foundation (May 20, 2011). Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided the author and his affiliations are cited.