Charter school backers want exemption from takeover district

In this Friday, Feb. 13, 2015, photo, a caution sign stands in front of D.H. Stanton Elementary School in Atlanta.
In this Friday, Feb. 13, 2015, photo, a caution sign stands in front of D.H. Stanton Elementary School in Atlanta.

ATLANTA -- Charter school supporters want the schools to be exempt from a state-run district that Gov. Nathan Deal is proposing to take over chronically failing institutions.

Deal's constitutional amendment requires backing from two-thirds of lawmakers and a statewide ballot planned for 2016. The details were unveiled last week, and Deal is in the midst of an aggressive campaign to win over lawmakers that will include a trip to New Orleans where a similar system has been used.

Two state-authorized charter schools were included on a list of "chronically failing" institutions produced by Deal's office. Critics of the proposal leaped on the schools' inclusion, arguing that state involvement doesn't guarantee success.

Charter school leaders must negotiate a contract with local or state authorizers, essentially agreeing to be accountable in exchange for flexibility, said Bonnie Holliday, executive director of the State Charter Schools Commission. The state commission considers whether to renew charters based on student performance and financial and operational goals. Members also can step in mid-contract for serious issues. In its first year, commission members closed two schools.

Charter backers, including leaders at one of the struggling schools identified by Deal's office, believe the existing system is sufficient. Christopher Kunney, board chair of Ivy Preparatory Academies, which oversees Ivy Prep Young Men's Leadership Academy in DeKalb County, said the school's three-year charter will be up for renewal before state authorizers this year. The school has added programs to support teachers and get parents involved, he said.

"We have a contract that we must meet, and if we don't there's a system built to address that," Kunney said.

Deal, a Republican who backed a constitutional amendment creating the state charter commission in 2012, said Tuesday that he's open to limiting the state takeover district to traditional public schools.

"I think they have a very valid point there," Deal said. "If (a charter school) does not live up to its obligations under the charter, then it goes away. That does not happen in the schools we are having difficulty with."

Angela Palm, director of policy for the Georgia School District Association, said charters shouldn't be treated differently.

"Charter schools are public schools, so if they meet the state definition of a qualifying school and have not been closed by their authorizer, they should be considered just as any other public school will be," Palm said.

Under Deal's plan, a superintendent, appointed by and accountable to the governor, would select up to 20 schools deemed to be failing each year. The superintendent then could make them into charters, close them or overhaul management with the authority to exempt the schools from many state requirements.

Senate Democrats rolled out an alternate approach Tuesday. It would create a grant program, allowing schools to apply for a share of $10 million in the first year for programs ranging from early-childhood education to mental or physical health services.

Sen. Vincent Fort, an Atlanta Democrat sponsoring the bill, likened Deal's proposal to "a gun at the head of public schools" while Senate Minority Leader Sen. Steve Henson said Democrats in his chamber are concerned that it is too broad and may not improve student performance.

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