ATLANTA --- Public-school educators frustrated by budget cuts, government mandates and criticism have taken their resistance to charter schools' relative freedoms to a new level -- the courthouse.
The first two state-chartered schools to get local funds have prompted a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the 2008 law that set up the funding transfer. The state asked the judge to dismiss it.
Charter schools come in two varieties, those chartered with the blessings of the local school district and those chartered by the state over the objections of the local board. Opposition to locally chartered schools has been muted, but the displeasure about the locally opposed charters reached a fever pitch after the introduction of the involuntary-funding legislation.
The new law allows charter schools to apply for the funds to the newly created Georgia Charter Schools Commission. If the commission agrees, it orders the Georgia Department of Education to withhold state funds that would have gone to the local district and send them instead to the school. The amount is based on what the district already spends on the average student, multiplied by the enrollment of the charter school.
Ivy Preparatory Academy in Norcross and Charter Conservatory for Liberal Arts & Technology in Statesboro sought and received the funds, getting their first checks last month. At their next meetings, the school boards in Gwinnett and Bulloch counties voted to sue, hiring former Attorney General Michael Bowers to make their case.
They argue that the state constitution authorizes only local boards to create schools and determine their funding.
The practical arguments have been repeated over the years since charter schools were first allowed in Georgia.
Supporters say educators need flexibility and exemptions from some rules in exchange for the chance to demonstrate whether they have a better way of teaching. The charter, agreed to by the school's sponsors and the state, spells out all the conditions and performance targets, and it can be revoked if results don't materialize.
Opponents say experimenting with students isn't fair to those kids. And they usually accuse the sponsors of too little experience, research or organization.
Plus, it seems inherently unjust to many educators for one school to operate under different rules than the others. Some even describe charters at taking away funding that should be going to students in traditional schools.
Of course, all the students at charter schools are also public-school students, notes Benita Dodd, vice president of the Atlanta-based think tank Georgia Public Policy Foundation.
"Charter schools may not cherry-pick students and must accept all students on a first-come, first-served basis," she said. "With no transportation provided by the school system, attendance speaks to a family's level of commitment in choosing that form and quality of public education." The minutes of the Gwinnett board stress that with two locally sanctioned charter schools and more on the way, district Superintendent Alvin Wilbanks is only concerned about protecting local authority.
"He indicated that with this action, the board is not taking a stand against the creation of charter schools, but against the establishment of a state commission that usurps the jurisdiction and resources of a duly elected local board of education," the minutes read.
Tony Roberts, chief executive officer of the Georgia Charter Schools Association, essentially blames the suing school boards for being stingy, especially Gwinnett, the state's biggest.
"We are sorry to hear that a school district with an annual budget of over $2 billion 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, adding the $850,000 at issue is a fraction of Gwinnett's budget. "It makes us question whether their priority is the education of all children in their district or maintaining their control regardless of their children's needs and the preferences of their parents."
As the case weaves through the courts, the list grows of other charter schools applying for local funds.
Walter Jones is the Atlanta bureau chief for Morris News and has been covering Georgia politics since 1998. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (404) 589-8424.