Charter schools dealt Supreme blow
The Georgia Supreme Court has ruled on charter schools, handing proponents of the initiative a 4-3 defeat May 16 on the state’s 2008 move that created a number of new charter schools, including the Coweta Charter Academy at Senoia in Coweta County. Affected public school systems support the move while charter advocates said the decision is a step backward for Georgia. Voicing their disagreement, Coweta parents and students joined others at a Capitol rally after the announcement to protest the decision and the Georgia Senate has formed a subcommittee to combat the judicial decision.
The decision Monday by the Supreme Court said essentially that local school boards have sole authority to open and fund public charter schools. The 4-3 ruling effectively neutralized the legislatively-enacted bill in 2008 that established the Georgia Charter Schools Commission and its subsequent move that approved a number of new public charter schools. One of those schools is in Senoia.
One of the Coweta Charter Academy families at the Capitol rally included Sue and Nacoma Robinson, there son Dante, a kindergarten student, and their 2 year-old Donovan.
“I was very disappointed by the ruling,” Sue said. “My son is very happy at the Coweta Charter Academy, and we are hopeful that this will all be worked out so he can continue going there.”
The Senoia charter school opened in August as a K-3 school and was about to begin construction on a new building to house the expanded campus for grades K-7. The court’s decision effectively alters those plans.
The Georgia Charter Educational Foundation and Charter Schools USA, operator of the Coweta Charter Academy at Senoia, issued a May 16 joint statement to parents.
“We are all disappointed by the news that the Georgia Supreme Court has ruled 4-3 against upholding the constitutionality of the Georgia Charter Schools Association. We are evaluating our options for continuing to operate the Coweta Charter Academy. One thing we do know for certain is that we will be unable to move forward with plans for expansion this year,” the letter said.
The letter to parents also noted that the organizations are in contact with executive and legislative leaders, “Who are interpreting the Supreme Court opinion and developing strategies to protect the currently authorized schools. We know this leaves many questions unanswered and, frankly, until we have solid answers, we want to do everything we can to avoid rumors. We will only issue official statements to parents and to the media when we have plans that we believe to be solid.”
Public school organizations were quick to support the court’s decision while other organizations sided with the charter school movement. Also voicing their opposition to the 4-3 vote were other Coweta Charter Academy parents.
One of those was Maurice Grover, a Senoia Councilman and parent of a Coweta Charter Academy student and another attending East Coweta High School.
“I’m a huge supporter and I’m 100 percent behind the charter school. Nobody can deny what our charter school has done in its first year, with CRCT scores and receiving accreditation,” Grover said. “The Coweta people have spoken and spoken strongly that they wanted this charter school.”
For their part, the Coweta County School System is maintaining a low-profile approach to the controversy that is brewing in the state’s communities.
“The impact of the ruling isn't entirely clear at this point,” said school system spokesperson Dean Jackson. “Whatever its impact may be, the school system will continue to serve the students of Coweta County.”
Meantime, the Georgia Association of Educators (GAE) was quick to give its support for the high court’s decision.
"The Court's decision reaffirms GAE's belief that public charter schools should remain under the management and control of their local school boards,” said GAE President Calvine Rollins. “We believe the Georgia Supreme Court's majority opinion echoes the constitutional and statutory analysis focused on in GAE's Amicus Brief to the Court regarding the historical, constitutional and statutory meaning of ‘special schools.’ GAE will continue to advocate to ensure that our public schools are institutions that strive to provide a great public education for every child."
On the opposite side of that coin was Charter Schools USA spokesperson Colleen Reynolds.
“We are bitterly disappointed that the Georgia Supreme Court has taken such a major step backward in providing educational options to parents. As in any reform in history, those who are poised to lose power or money, fight the hardest. In this case, they have unfortunately won this battle. However, the war for education reform is still raging and we believe the people will win,” Reynolds said. “There is clearly a strong desire to allow charter schools to operate as evidenced by the record number of applications our schools received. We are confident that parents who want a better choice for their child’s education will exercise their rights and make their voices heard. We believe they will not settle for a system of education that was established in the 1800s and no longer fills their needs.”
As for the Coweta Charter Academy at Senoia, Reynolds said Charter Schools USA is reviewing its options and will inform parents on how it will proceed.
“At this point, it is too early to comment on our plans as we evaluate those plans going forward,” Reynolds said.
There are yet others weighing in on the judicial decision. One of those was state School Superintendent John Barge.
"With today's Supreme Court ruling against the legality of the Charter Schools Commission, the state stands ready to help in whatever way necessary to ensure that the education of the students in these schools is not compromised," said Barge. "I will be working closely with the State Board of Education to see what flexibility can be offered for these schools."
Yet another group, the Georgia Public Policy Foundation, found the court’s decision significantly flawed and one that does not take into account the best interests of the state’s youngest citizens.
"Today’s ruling was a direct blow to educational and economic opportunity for many Georgia students and families. It's a disappointment that government budgets take precedence over academic excellence and making available the best education options for Georgia's children,” said organization president Kelly McCutchen. "In just three years, the Georgia Charter School Commission succeeded in destroying the artificial geographic barriers to quality public education. Whether it was young, predominantly minority girls crossing district lines to attend Ivy Preparatory Academy or rural students seeking high quality options through statewide virtual schools, thousands of families embraced the choice to better their education and their lives.”
McCutchen suggested that some in the Georgia General Assembly might come forward to “rectify this wrong by amending the state Constitution,” noting that the start of the next school year is only three months away.
Meantime, it looks like the Georgia Senate is willing to get into the fray. The Senate on Monday announced the creation of the Education and Youth subcommittee, “Special Subcommittee on School Choice,” to address the Supreme Court decision.
“(The Supreme Court) ruling could affect thousands of students across Georgia. We must take a proactive approach in order to engage all parties involved and ensure that each of these students have a quality place to learn come this fall,” said Sen. Fran Millar, Chairman of the Committee on Education and Youth. “At this point, it is vital that we create a subcommittee to review this disappointing ruling and ensure that educational choice is not neglected in Georgia. The committee will make it our priority to engage all parties involved and determine the best route for excellence in education across Georgia and protect those most affected by this decision.”
Senoia business owner Scott Tigchelaar is one who has supported the idea of having a charter school housed in the community for the past eight years. The questions he raised after the decision went to the heart of the freedom of educational choice and the meaning of constitutionality.
“I question anybody who is opposed to freedom of choice in education. Parents should be able to decide where their tax dollars are going and who’s going to educate their children,” Tigchelaar said Thursday. “Talk about constitutionality. A lower court (last year) threw this out and it goes to the Supreme Court and gets a 4-3 vote. How can you have a 4-3 vote on constitutionality? There’s nothing more constitutional than people choosing where there dollars are spent.”
As for the Coweta Charter Academy at Senoia, school operator and Florida-based Charter Schools USA in February received a five-year accreditation for all its nearly two dozen schools from the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Council on Accreditation and School Improvement (SACS/CASI) conferred by the AdvancED Accreditation Commission.
AdvancedED CEO Dr. Mark Elgart in commenting on the accreditation said, “Corporate accreditation is a rigorous process that focuses the entire school system on the primary goal of creating lifelong learners. Charter Schools USA is to be commended for engaging in this process and demonstrating a commitment to continuous improvement.”
Tigchelaar agreed, noting that, early on, there were some who doubted if the Senoia school could prove itself academically.
“But they have proved themselves in receiving accreditation and through test scores,” he said.