I am sitting in a corner on the floor at the Senate hearing on the fate of 16 charter schools ruled unconstitutional by the state Supreme Court because they were established by a state commission over the objections of local boards of education.
The hearing is packed with children in red shirts from Atlanta Heights Charter, one of the schools left in the limbo last month by the high court ruling. (The ruling was 4-3, and the court has been asked to reconsider its decision.)
State Sen. Fran Millar, chair of the Senate ed committee, is speaking now, giving the background on the situation and the options. Millar says he has talked to “people in Washington” about Race to the Top grant funds and whether they can be tapped to rescue these schools and assure them full funding.
“Unfortunately, Race to the Top monies cannot be used to fill these holes,” he said.
Other ideas Millar says have been suggested to help the schools:
1. These charter schools can become private schools and the state can create vouchers that students could use. (That would take legislation.)
2. Change the Georgia constitution but it would not solve the immediate problem of what these kids can do in August when school is supposed to start as it requires a statewide referendum.
3. Now, Millar says that the constitution allows the state board of education to put a question on the ballot asking local school districts to help fund state special schools, which these charter schools could now become. (Don’t see such a question winning voter approval in financially strapped towns already cutting away at their existing schools.)
“Our immediate concern today is try to come up with a solution for these young people and their families,” said Millar.
Now, Mark Peevy, executive director of the state Charter Schools Commission, says he urged schools to become locally approved charters. He repeated many of the comments he made two weeks ago at a meeting of charter school operators.
He noted that the existing eight commission charter schools are no longer concepts, but actual schools with students in classrooms so local boards may be willing to adopt them now.
“These are schools with proven performance and we are very happy with the results we are seeing. And when we are all said and done, we are talking about student achievement,” said Millar.
“We have two categories of schools,” said Millar. “Existing ones that are proven and new ones on the block that we expect would do as well.”
Of the 15,644 affected students in the 16 charters, 10,000 of them would be taking classes virtually through online schools. One virtual school is operating, the Georgia Cyber Academy, and two were due to open this fall. So, in terms of brick and mortar schools, they represented only a third of the affected students. Two-thirds of the students are online students — which presents a special challenge.
Since virtual schools are statewide and cannot apply to a single school board for approval and funding, their situation is trickier. Peevy is saying they can go back to the state and become state charter special school, but those schools only receive state funds. There is no local money when a charter school is commissioned by the state board of education.
Now, Tony Roberts, CEO of the Georgia Charter Schools Association, is urging the Senate to not only help the existing eight schools but the other eight that were planning to open. He asked the Senate to continue pushing local systems as he said they are giving schools a tempered message of encouragement.
“Let me tell you how these conversations are going right now. The school systems are saying, ‘We are not going to approve you as a charter school. We are going to give you one year, bridge funding so to speak, then we will consider whether you continue as a charter school.’ I don’t want you to think the action right now is going to solve the problem,” Roberts said.
“We are telling our schools to keep all their options open,” said Roberts. “I do not want our schools to have less funding because children in these schools are same children as children in other schools, but I am here to tell you, charter schools, because of their flexibility, because of their commitment, they can do with less money. I am not advocating for less money.”
If the General Assembly created a special supplement for these schools, Roberts thought it would spur foundation help and grants. He suggested it would be worthwhile for DOE to seek aid from the feds even if Race to the Top is off limits.
“They have money and grants that we don’t even know about, that they don’t even know about. I would encourage the state, governor, our state superintendent and this Legislature to really apply everywhere with the U.S. Department of Education to make this difference up,” he said.
Now, Matt Arkin, head of School of the Georgia Cyber Academy, is speaking. The school was due to get more funding this fall as a result of becoming a charter commission school. It is getting $3,200 per student now, Arkin said, but was going up to $5,800 as a result of its new commission status.
They had 6,500 students this year. They have 8,500 enrolled for this fall in k-10. They serve kids in all counties but five. “We are a true equalizer,” Arkin said. They have 800 special need students, 42 percent minorities and around 15 percent gifted.
“We work well for parents and families in Georgia, Our students work at home with a parent or other adult who have to work with them during the day,” he said.
As a newly approved charter commission school, Georgia Cyber Academy will lose between $20 and $30 million in anticipated local dollars because of the Supreme Court decision.
“Sacrifices will continue by our students and our teachers. Any support our Georgia General Assembly can provide for the things our students should have had these past three years as well would be appreciated,” Arkin said.
One of the heads of a school that was about to open is now speaking. Monica Henson is executive director of Provost Academy, a public online high school with 800 seats due to open in the fall.
“About 40 percent of students who seek online high school options generally can be classified as at risk of dropping out,” she said.
Henson said addressing the school to prison pipeline — she prefers to call it a bleeding wound than a pipeline– was one of her goals in launching an online high school to give potential dropouts a way to stay in school. “I ask that the Legislature consider additional options,” she said.
Millar called charter schools an economic engine as well as a successful reform model in Georgia.
“Charter schools are a way to make parents and guardians responsible for their children. I’m a believer,” he said.
Now, Superintendent John Barge is speaking — without a microphone so I am straining in my corner floor spot to hear him. He is saying that DOE has offered flexibility to systems.
There are two initial options for these schools, he said, local approval, which brings full funding, or state board approval, which brings only state dollars.
“We are going to get bureaucracy out of the way and take care of students,” he said. “The best option is for local school districts to approve these schools when it comes to funding and their relationships in the community. We are asking local districts to honestly consider these charters. We have waived some deadlines for them.”
“In the end it comes down to a funding issue,” said Barge. “I cannot change that. Only the Legislature can change that.”
At that point, Millar said, “I promise you that the governor, the lieutenant governor, the leadership of the Senate, the leadership of the House, we are urging local boards wherever possible to approve these schools. That is going to be the best short-term solution.”
–From Maureen Downey, for the AJC Get Schooled blog