published Saturday, June 4th, 2011

Options unsure on court’s charter school ruling

ATLANTA — After the Georgia Supreme Court struck down part of the state’s charter school law, parents and lawmakers have been left with just a few tantalizing yet uncertain last-ditch options as they struggle to find a new way to keep a handful of schools open.

Lawmakers and school officials said Friday that in the short term, state leaders are pressuring local school boards to approve the 16 state-commissioned charter schools, with 16,000 students, that could be shut down by the court’s May ruling. The State Board of Education also could give them a special status that could at least temporarily keep their doors open.

But the longer-term options are more challenging.

A constitutional amendment to protect the schools would require overwhelming legislative support and a massive public campaign. Holding local elections to authorize funding for the schools would be a venture into relatively uncharted territory. During a Friday hearing, State Sen. Fran Millar said a last resort would be to privatize the schools and help parents meet tuition with an expanded voucher program.

The court’s 4-3 ruling overturned a law that had allowed the state to approve and fund charter schools over the objection of local school boards. The justices concluded that only local school boards have the power to open public schools, and that the state commission was “clearly and palpably unconstitutional.”

Attorney General Sam Olens and several of the schools have asked the court to reconsider its decision, saying it could throw the state’s education system into chaos. The county school districts that successfully challenged the law filed a motion Friday praising the court’s “carefully rendered” decision, and urging the court to resist another review.

The ruling targeted a state commission that was created in 2008 by frustrated lawmakers who said local school boards were rejecting charter petitions because they didn’t like the competition. A year earlier, charter school supporters had submitted 26 petitions to local school districts, and all 26 were denied, charter school officials say.

School districts filed a lawsuit, claiming the commission violated state law by unfairly taking funding from the districts and giving it to charter schools. They claimed the commission was actually taking local tax dollars without the approval of local taxpayers.

State Schools Superintendent John Barge said the best option would be to persuade local school boards to adopt the charter schools as their own. He said he’s already given the districts and charter schools more flexibility to meet the usually strict deadlines for filing petitions.

The uncertain outlook is already taking a toll on students, parents and teachers.

Matt Arkin is head of the Georgia Cyber Academy, one of the schools jeopardized by the ruling. He said he’s already had to scrap plans to add classes in foreign languages and the arts, cancel a bid to hire more teachers and scale back a program that provides more computers to low-income students.

“Our students are really the ones who have had to compromise,” he said.

Millar and other lawmakers said they’re committed to seek ways to help the schools find a solution over the next two months. Some lawmakers, however, couldn’t help but lash out at the court. State Senate President Pro Tem Tommie Williams erupted after hearing about one school’s plight.

“It’s so stupid a decision can be made that can hurt kids this bad,” said Williams, a Lyons Republican. “You just have to say, ‘What were they thinking?”’

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