The bully is trying to keep control over the schoolyard.
That’s the bottom line of the lawsuit that the Gwinnett County school district filed last week. Gwinnett claims the state’s Charter Schools Commission acted illegally both in granting a charter to Ivy Preparatory Academy and in funding the all-girls school.
We’ll get to those matters in a moment, but first some background is in order.
School choice has been a long time in coming to Georgia, despite the state’s lengthy history of poor education. Charter schools, which are publicly funded but don’t have to follow all the rules that traditional schools do, are one tool for putting pressure on underperforming or just unimaginative public systems. Offering a free alternative allows students, particularly low-income kids who can’t afford a private education, to move to schools that better suit them.
But despite being popular with students and parents, charter schools have taken root slowly.
In 2000, then-Gov. Roy Barnes called for 100 charter schools within five years. We’ve only barely met that goal. Charter operators sometimes report that local systems are uncooperative, keen to avoid competition.
Charter schools have long been a key conservative initiative. But Barnes is of course a Democrat, and so are two other prominent supporters of the idea — President Barack Obama and his education secretary, Arne Duncan.
So the obstacles to charter-school growth aren’t partisan or even mostly ideological. They owe to obstinacy from the very monopolies they are supposed to help break. It’s about control.
Which brings us back to Gwinnett County.
The school system’s constitutional claims boil down to an argument that the legislature was wrong to empower the Charter Schools Commission to create and fund schools without local school boards’ permission.
But given that education is one of the state’s primary constitutional responsibilities, it would take an overly narrow reading of the law to conclude that legislators didn’t have the authority to make such decisions.
As for the money angle, the Gwinnett system claims in part that the state’s grant of some $850,000 to Ivy Preparatory Academy risks “irreparable harm” to other county students.
Let’s see: For the current fiscal year, the state granted $4,065.07 per pupil to Gwinnett schools. Take away the $850,000 for Ivy Prep, and the 216 Gwinnett residents who attend it, and per-pupil funding for Gwinnett comes to … $4,065.25.
Hmmm. Does this mean Gwinnett officials are among those who believe more spending only leads to worse results?
The school district also complains that the state is effectively taking away local revenue, because it withholds extra state money to make up for the local funding that Ivy Prep doesn’t receive. But as we just saw, per-pupil state funding isn’t falling.
Anyway, money is fungible. If Gwinnett did have a shortfall of state funding, it would also retain the local money that would have been spent on those 216 Ivy Prep students had they stayed in other Gwinnett schools. It’s a wash.
But a wash is what the public-school monopolies fear. Under Georgia’s original charter-school law, the state couldn’t withhold funds to make up for the local money that charter schools routinely don’t receive. That meant charter schools were operating at a serious financial disadvantage. Now the state is merely adding a reason that it can withhold funds from a local system; it can already do so if the system doesn’t administer a required examination, for example.
Many Gwinnett schools are good, but this case’s repercussions would extend elsewhere. Parents in Clayton County and, more recently, Pulaski and Peach counties, have been so desperate to get their children into better schools that they have given false information about their home address. They ought to have a legal option.
A Missouri court recently upheld that state’s charter-schools law in a case resembling this one in several aspects. Georgia courts would be wise to be equally deferential to the legislature, and let schools compete in classrooms, not courtrooms.