Mark Peevy , executive director of the Georgia Charter Schools Commission, and Tony Roberts, CEO of the Georgia Charter Schools Association, met today with leaders of the 16 charter schools whose futures are in doubt now that the Supreme Court has struck down the commission that approved and funded them.
Their message to the schools delivered at the meeting and via a live Webcast by Michelle Rhee’s StudentsFirst Georgia of the session: Hang in there. Help is coming.
The schools have two challenges to overcome in the next three months to survive. They have to be legalized, either through local boards of education or the state board of education. In both case, deadlines have passed so the schools have to also win waivers to even get on the agendas for consideration.
And they have to find new funding or live on a lot less.
If the schools are legitimized by the state board rather than local boards, they lose their local funding, which is considerable. Peevy said the 16 schools get about 50 percent of their funding through local taxes, an annual infusion of $40 million overall. (While the Supreme Court did not speak directly to the power of the state board of education to approve charter schools, its decision could be seen as an indictment of that practice as well. However, Peevy doubted there would be any legal challenge to state board authorization since no local funds are involved.)
In striking down the Georgia Charter Schools Commission and its power to approve and fund charter schools over the objections of local school boards, the state Supreme Court offered a simple rationale: “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.”
Because of the court’s return of power to create charter schools to local boards, Peevy and Roberts urged the charter schools to return to their local boards of education for approval as their first step. The pair was hopeful that the eight schools that are in operation — the other eight are due to open this fall — would be able to win over their school boards with their results.
“For the eight of you who are running schools, you are in a fundamentally different position than when you applied to those boards,” said Peevy. “Now, you have proven effort. Now, you have a building with children in it, a proven board, a proven management team that has run a quality operation for a year. That puts you in fundamentally different position than when you were a concept on a piece of paper.”
The pair held out little hope that the Supreme Court would reconsider its ruling, although the vote was 4-3. The deadline for the state to seek a reconsideration — a rare occurrence by courts — is the end of this month.
Peevy warned the schools that an injunction would be coming to enact the Supreme Court decision. “When that happens, the commission will close our doors and your current commission charters are not longer in effect,” he said. “There is very little that could be done in the short term if we get past the reconsideration option.”
There was more optimism that help could arrive through a statewide referendum to change the Georgia constitution to empower the state of Georgia to create schools, although local systems would fight any change that would divert locally raised school taxes to state control.
The problem with a constitutional amendment is that any relief to be offered would be at least two years away since the question has to pass the Legislature and then get on a ballot of a general election. ( Charter advocates hope the Legislature will take up the issue in the August special session, but it may be too hot — literally and figuratively — to deal with it then.)
Roberts said he was hoping for bridge funding from either the state or foundations to close the $40 million gap in lost local funds.
“Gov. Deal has done some things and planned some things that show me he is a charter school supporter,” said Roberts.
One possible pile of money for the 16 schools could be the $20 million in Race to the Top funds set aside for charter schools specializing in science, technology, engineering or math, although the schools have to apply for the money and the process is complicated.
Roberts also said the Legislature wants to help the 16 schools, saying the Supreme Court ruling “miffed” lawmakers. He said local school boards risk further aggravating legislators if they reject the charter schools in their communities.
“When you give your boards an opportunity to approve a high performing charter school and they don’t do it, they give you ammunition for the next time, as their decision will reverberate in the Legislature.”
Roberts urged the schools to mobilize their parents and their friends. Peevy advised them to prod their relatives in Tifton and outside Atlanta to call as well.
If the 16 schools have to open and operate on reduced budgets, Roberts assured them that it will be for the short-term and money will be found. “Somehow, if you could operate like that for one year, at least you could get to the shore in the lifeboat where help might be waiting. Maybe, by that time there may be new mechanism, or a reborn commission.”
–From Maureen Downey, for the AJC Get Schooled blog