One Step Forward and A Long Road Ahead for Commission Schools

Get ready. Get set. Go back to (your favorite charter) school.

Now that they’ve been thrown a parachute, what’s next for a handful of former state commission charter schools and nearly 16,000 students? The search for that answer leads to other questions: Do you mean sooner or later? And, would Georgia voters be inclined to embrace the idea charter schools might help the state overcome its mediocre education reputation?

“I’ve been called a lot of things in life. This is the first time I’ve been called unconstitutional,” Mark Peevy said during his testimony at Friday morning’s Senate education sub-committee hearing. Peevy is executive director of the Georgia Charter Schools Commission, which the state Supreme Court threw out in a decision announced last month.

Senate and House legislators, the state Department of Education, commission schools, parent groups and the Georgia Charter Schools Association have worked for three weeks to clear a path that would enable all 16 state commission charter schools to reopen this August.

Standing Room Only Friday at Senate Education Hearing on State Commission Charter Schools“There is no reason why we can’t take care of this quickly,” state schools superintendent John Barge said Friday.   It was his first public event statement since the Supreme Court decision.

Here’s what you can expect over the next several weeks. Some brick and mortar commission schools have applied to receive one-year charters from local districts. This recognizes time is short and shuttering these schools is not good for students and it is terrible public relations.

“It’s not good when you make the New York Times for the wrong reasons,” Senate education chair Fran Millar told hundreds who attended Friday’s hearing. “We’ve got to find a way to make this thing work. We’re being looked at by the world to see how we deal with this situation.”

Gwinnett, DeKalb and Cherokee county school systems are working closely with commission schools. The state Board of Education will meet this month to vote on granting special school status to other schools that still need charters. That would include the online learning schools.

“We are urging local boards wherever possible to approve these schools, as many as they can,” Barge said. “That is going to be the best short-term solution at this point in time.”

There is a lot of work to be done on finances.  Reopening schools with local charters or as state special schools will require innovative combinations of federal, state, local and potentially private dollars.  Georgia cannot use any of this year's $100 million Race to the Top grant, but it will seek other federal support and the Charter Schools Assocation will explore private foundation options.

Nobody knows for certain how much Georgia’s education image was tarnished by last month’s Supreme Court decision. Nor is it possible to measure how the decision will impact the charter schools movement. The Georgia Charter Schools Association estimates charter schools of all kinds will enroll 77,000 students statewide this fall, barely 2.5% of public school students.

“This is a setback because the eyes of the nation have been on us thinking that Georgia would be a good place for education management organizations to partner with people,” said Tony Roberts, president and CEO of the Georgia Charter Schools Association. “This is going to put some reluctance on that, to say the least.”

The quick fix that would enable commission schools to reopen this fall is a one-year or perhaps two-year solution at best. The next move belongs to the Legislature which must decide whether it wants to place a proposed constitutional amendment on the November 2012 ballot.

Voters could be asked to re-establish the commission concept, or perhaps allow the state to expand the definition of state special schools. There is no guarantee how voters would react.

Last November voters rejected a ballot initiative that would have imposed a small annual motor vehicle fee to completely fund a statewide trauma care network. Central and South Georgia voters who would have benefited the most from new trauma centers defeated the initiative.

How will voters respond next year when they are asked for permission to impose additional sales taxes to fund long lists of regional transportation projects. These are being called critical to Georgia’s future, but in a state with high unemployment and many more folks underemployed, will voters be inclined to raise their sales taxes?  Nobody can say but millions of dollars will be spent trying to convince them.

Strategies to provide short-term relief to the former commission schools are a good step forward.  But they are far from a solution and that is recognized by everyone involved.  Senator Millar said this about going forward, “I hope at this point that we don’t have any more litigation.”

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