Georgia Supreme Court strikes down Charter Schools Commission

Photo by Jason Braverman

Photo by Jason Braverman

In a ruling released Monday morning, the state Supreme Court struck down a state commission that could approve charter schools over the objection of local boards of education and direct local funding to the schools. The vote was 4-3.

"No other constitutional provision authorizes any other governmental entity to compete with or duplicate the efforts of local boards of education in establishing and maintaining general K-12 schools," the opinion states. "By providing for local boards of education to have exclusive control over general K-12 schools, our constitutions, past and present, have limited governmental authority over the public education of Georgia's children to that level of government closest and most responsive to the taxpayers and parents of the children being educated."

The decision is a major victory for school systems and local control but a setback to the burgeoning charter school movement in Georgia. Unclear is the fate of the 14 charter schools approved by the commission.

Charter schools receive public funds to operate under a board-approved charter, or contract, that spells out a plan for improving student achievement and provides benchmarks for measuring this improvement on a five-year time line. If those benchmarks aren't met, the school is supposed to close.

Up until two years ago, school boards in Georgia had primary power to veto or promote charter schools, but lawmakers felt that the school boards were hostile to charter schools and turned down strong applicants. So, the General Assembly created a commission that not only could approve charters, but redirect monies so that the schools receive their share of local dollars.

And that was the issue that is before the Supreme Court after seven systems -- Atlanta, DeKalb, Candler, Coweta, Bulloch, Gwinnett and Griffin-Spalding -- sued to have the state law that created the Charter Schools Commission declared unconstitutional. The systems lost their case in Fulton County Superior Court a year ago, but appealed to the Supreme Court in October. (Not all the systems were part of the appeal to the high court,)

The Supreme Court focused on two issues in its ruling: Does the state constitution give the state the right to create charter schools over the objection of local boards of education? The state argued for a broad definition of state-sponsored "special schools," which have historically been limited to the state-run schools for the blind and deaf. The second point of contention was whether the seven-member Charter Schools Commission was a device for the state to divert local money to charter schools.

In its decision, the court sided with the systems, but now the question is what becomes of the charter schools already approved by the commission. Please note, the majority of charter schools in Georgia were approved by local boards of education and are not affected by this court ruling. This ruling affects the 14 approved by the commission.

However, in the larger picture, the decision ruling undermines the charter movement as it returns control to local boards and reduces the flow of dollars to charter schools approved at the state level.

The state Board of Education can still approve charter schools that were rejected by local boards, but those schools get only state money, but no local funding.