Attorney General Olens Asks Supreme Court to Reconsider Charter Schools Decision

Georgia Attorney General Sam Olens has asked the state Supreme Court to reconsider its recent decision that declared the state charter schools commission is unconstitutional.

“Today we filed a motion for reconsideration in an effort to protect the rights of Georgia students to have a say in their education and be placed in a school that meets their needs,” Olens said. “I hope the Court will accept the arguments presented in our brief and reconsider their decision.” The two-part filing included a motion asking the Court to stay its decision announced May 16.

The Court’s 4-3 opinion immediately impacts 16 brick-and-mortar and online learning charter schools that expected to enroll at least 15,000 students when classes resume in August. State legislators have begun work on options to provide a short-term fix this fall. A Senate education sub-committee will be in session on this question next week.

All Georgia charter schools are public schools, and most of the state’s 60,000 charter students attend schools that received charters from local school districts. However, 16 other schools received state Charter Schools Commission authorization to open after they were turned down by local districts. This was made possible by a 2008 law that created the commission.

Seven school districts filed suit in 2009. They argued that the state charter schools commission was unconstitutional because it bypassed local control of education. The plaintiffs also argued state charter commission schools did not fit the definition of “special schools” that the state is permitted to establish for deaf and blind students, and for other purposes like adult education.

The plaintiff districts did not argue money before the trial court, where they lost, or before the Supreme Court, where they prevailed one week ago. Tens of millions of federal, state and local dollars are directed to state charter commission schools. Consequently, local school districts lose those dollars when students exercise school choice rights and choose charter schools.

Four Supreme Court justices in the majority ruled state charter commission schools are not special schools, according to the definition of special schools in the 1983 amended constitution. The Court also affirmed the local control position advocated by the plaintiff school districts.

The Attorney General’s office motion articulated this distinction: “Special now evidently means a ‘special student,’ while our Constitution refers to ‘special schools.’ ‘Special’ apparently no longer means a school that offers an experimental and different approach to education than that found in a local school system.”

The motion to reconsider filed by Attorney General Olens also argued Georgia public education has never been exclusively about local control; rather, it is a shared responsibility. The Georgia state public education budget is some $7 billion per year, about 40% of the entire state budget.

Charter schools enroll about 4% of the state’s 1.65 million public school students; the number who would attend state commission schools next year is 1% of the entire student population.

State lawmakers are considering several ideas that would enable Georgia to regain the position it had begun to earn as a national leader in the school choice and charter schools movements.

Short-term options include placing the 16 affected schools directly under the state Board of Education as “special schools” that receive state funds but no local dollars. Another potential idea would enable them to open this fall as private schools. Funding models would change.

Long-term, the Legislature is expected to approve a proposed constitutional amendment that would ask voters to give the state the authority to establish public schools. The amendment would appear on the November 2012 general election ballot. But that election is 18 months away, so other protections are needed for the 2011 and 2012 calendar school years.

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