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By DORIE TURNER

Associated Press Writer

ATLANTA - The Gwinnett County Schools filed suit Friday against a new state law that created a state charter school commission, alleging the district is being illegally forced to fund a Norcross charter school.

The lawsuit filed in Fulton County Superior Court poses the first legal challenge to a controversial 2008 law establishing the independent Georgia Charter Schools Commission.

Under that law, groups seeking to start charter schools can gain approval even if they've been denied backing by their local district. The suit filed by Gwinnett County officials claims the law is unconstitutional because the charter schools commission is, in effect, creating an independent school system, which is prohibited by the state constitution.

The suit also calls into question $850,000 that the Gwinnett County district - the largest school system in the state with 160,000 students - had to give to the all-girls Ivy Preparatory Academy after the charter schools commission voted in June to grant the school local funding despite the district's protests.

"The Georgia Charter Schools Commission is unconstitutionally set up and, as a result, it is illegally chartering schools and is illegally taking money from Gwinnett County school children," said Mike Bowers, a former Georgia attorney general and Atlanta attorney representing the school district.

The lawsuit names as defendants: Georgia schools Superintendent Kathy Cox, the Georgia Department of Education, the Georgia Charter Schools Commission, members of the commission and Ivy Preparatory Academy.

Georgia Department of Education spokesman Dana Tofig declined comment because officials had not yet seen the lawsuit.

Nina Gilbert, who heads Ivy Prep, said she is saddened by the lawsuit.

"I cannot fathom we would have to fight over funding that would benefit the education of young girls," she said. "But we're determined not to make it a distraction."

Georgia Charter Schools Association president and CEO Tony Roberts issued a statement saying the payment the schools receive "represents a speck in the district's budget."

"We are sorry to hear that a school district with an annual budget of over $2 billion dollars would file a suit against the state to prevent it from fulfilling its financial responsibility to providing a quality education for a diverse group of 300 young girls, many of whom are eligible for free and reduced lunch," he said.

Ivy Prep applied to the Gwinnett County school board in 2007 for approval and was denied. The school's founders gained approval from the state Department of Education to open as a "state special chartered school" in 2008, but Gwinnett County was not required to provide local tax dollars to the school.

In June, the charter schools commission voted that the practice was inappropriate and that Gwinnett County should give funding to the school.

Gwinnett's lawsuit may not be the only challenge to the new law.

The Bulloch County school district plans to file a similar suit in coming weeks over funding for Statesboro's Charter Conservatory for Liberal Arts & Technology, superintendent Lewis Holloway said. The small south Georgia district is being forced to give about $400,000 year to the school, a huge dent in the district's budget.

"I don't think we can quietly say that's OK," Holloway said.

The charter school law passed last year is part of a series of state laws over the last decade that have made Georgia one of the most open states for the schools, which receive taxpayer money but operate independently and set their own goals for meeting federal No Child Left Behind standards. The schools usually are run by groups of parents, business leaders or community members.

Charter school experts say Georgia is just one of nine states with such independent commissions.

Minnesota passed the first charter school law in 1991, and now 39 states and Washington, D.C., allow the schools to be opened. Nationally, there are more than 1.5 million students in nearly 5,000 public charter schools.

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On the Net:

Gwinnett County Schools: http://www.gwinnett.k12.ga.us/

Georgia Department of Education: http://www.gadoe.org

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