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Supreme Court: Charter Schools Commission Unconstitutional

The 4-3 decision could derail plans for Cherokee Charter Academy and the 995 students who learned Saturday that they would be part of the school's inaugural class.

Seven local districts felt a law that allowed the state to reconsider rejected charter school applicants was unconstitutional. And in a 4-3 decision that could possibly impact Cherokee County's first charter school, the state Supreme Court agreed.

Local school boards have exclusive authority to create and maintain K-12 public education, Chief Justice Carol Hunstein wrote for the majority in a 24-page opinion released this morning. State-established schools authorized by the 2008 Georgia Charter Schools Commission Act do not fit the definition of "special schools" as envisioned in the state constitution, the court found.

“Because our constitution embodies the fundamental principle of exclusive local control of general primary and secondary (“K-12”) public education, and the Act clearly and palpably violates Art. VIII, Sec. V, Par. VII (a) by authorizing a State commission to establish competing State-created general K-12 schools under the guise of being ‘special schools,’ we reverse,” the Supreme Court said in the opinion.

Justices David Nahmias and Harold Melton were among those who dissented.

“Today four judges have wiped away a small but important effort to improve public education in Georgia – an effort that reflects not only the education policy of this State’s elected representatives but also the national education policy of the Obama Administration,” they said in a 75-page dissent. “That result is unnecessary, and it is unfortunate for Georgia’s children, particularly those already enrolled and thriving in state charter schools."

Cherokee Charter Academy was approved by the Georgia Charter Schools Commission after the denied its charter application.

The school forged ahead with plans for its inaugural year knowing the case could potentially derail those efforts.

In March, officials announced the school would open in the fall at the site of , the Sixes Road private school that has endured mounting debt, foreclosure and other problems in the last few months. Earlier this month, officials hired . And on Saturday, the school held a lottery that determined who got in the school and who didn't. The results of the lottery were posted here.

Parent Lisa Farmer wrote on the Canton-Sixes Patch Facebook page that she "was skeptical from the beginning that they moved forward with the lottery and hiring without hearing the results of the ruling, first.

"I feel sad for the families who were accepted and had their hopes up only to be let down this morning."

Jennifer Cosgrove wanted to know how this morning's ruling would "affect the time limit that parents were given to accept the child's place in the school." Parents were told they had seven days to accept the school's offer.

"Are they going to extend it until they have a concrete plan in place," she asked.

Charter Schools USA spokeswoman Colleen Reynolds said she didn't know how to answer that question. Charter Schools USA operates Cherokee Charter Academy.

She said officials don't fully understand the ramifications of this morning's decision and don't want to issue any statements about how it will impact students until they get that clarity. Reynolds said the executive team is meeting now.

"We are reviewing our options and will inform parents of how we will proceed," she said. "At this point, it is too early to comment on our plans as we reassess our role in the state of Georgia."

Reynolds said Charter Schools USA is "bitterly disappointed that the Georgia Supreme Court has taken such a major step backward in educating our students.

"As in any reform in history, those who are poised to lose power or money, fight the hardest. In this case, they have unfortunately won this battle. However, the war for education reform is still raging and we believe the people will win.

She said there is a clear and strong desire to allow charter schools. The number of applications received prove it.

"We are confident that parents who want a better choice for their child’s education will exercise their rights and make their voices heard," Reynolds said. "We believe they will not settle for a system of education that was established in the 1800s and no longer fills their needs."

Sherry Hage, vice president of education for Charter Schools USA, declined comment. So did Suarez, the founding principal.

Meanwhile, the Georgia Charter Schools Association is organizing a rally on the Washington Street side of the Georgia State Capitol at 10:30 a.m. Tuesday, spokesman Seth Coleman said.

"The attorney general is going to be advising the commission on what their next should be," he said. "We don't know this for certain, but we hope that the Legislature – which created the commission by drawing up and approving House Bill 881 – will look at the objections that the four justices had to House Bill 881 and to the commission and address it in a legal manner."

If necessary, Coleman said the association hopes the Georiga Department of Education and Gov. Nathan Deal intervene as well.

"To make sure that the commission stays viable," he said, "and that schools that have been approved and are open continue to stay open so that those children that are being educated in those schools are not left in the lurch."

FAST FACTS

See the summary as well as the full version of the court's decision on this page. Check back with canton-ga.patch.com for updates throughout the day on this breaking news story.

STATEMENT FROM CHARTER SCHOOLS USA

We are bitterly disappointed that the Georgia Supreme Court has taken such a major step backward in educating our students. As in any reform in history, those who are poised to lose power or money, fight the hardest. In this case, they have unfortunately won this battle. However, the war for education reform is still raging and we believe the people will win. There is clearly a strong desire to allow charter schools to operate as evidenced by the record number of applications our schools received. We are confident that parents who want a better choice for their child’s education will exercise their rights and make their voices heard. We believe they will not settle for a system of education that was established in the 1800s and no longer fills their needs. The Georgia Charter Schools Association is organizing a rally on the Washington Street side of the Georgia State Capitol Building tomorrow, May, 17 at 10:30 am and encourages everyone adversely affected by this ruling to attend.  At Charter Schools USA, we are reviewing our options and will inform parents of how we will proceed. At this point, it is too early to comment on our plans as we reassess our role in the State of Georgia.

Colleen Reynolds, Charter Schools USA spokeswoman

STATEMENT FROM STATE SCHOOL SUPERINTENDENT

With today's Supreme Court ruling against the legality of the Charter Schools Commission, the state stands ready to help in whatever way necessary to ensure that the education of the students in these schools is not compromised. I will be working closely with the State Board of Education to see what flexibility can be offered for these schools.

Dr. John Barge, state school superintendent

STATEMENT FROM GEORGIA CHARTER SCHOOLS ASSOCIATION

OUR REACTION

We are very saddened to learn of the majority opinion of the Georgia Supreme Court today striking down the Georgia Charter Schools Commission.

This is bad news for thousands of children and parents in Georgia who hoped for a brighter future with their children in a Commission charter school.

This is bad news to Georgia’s existing Commission-approved and high-quality charter schools—16 Commission-approved schools either operating today or who planned to open in the fall with over 15,000 students. These students have a right to be very upset today that their futures are threatened.

This is bad news to Georgia where our students’ academic performance and graduation rates are among some of the lowest in the nation.

This is a case where the majority is NOT right.  The minority opinion of the Supreme Court contained in the 75 pages of dissenting opinion is the one that is right! 

Charter schools are THE one education reform that has support in every part of the political spectrum—Republican, Democratic, liberal, and conservative. We are in agreement with Justice Nahmias who decried the majority opinion and wrote that “four judges have wiped away a small but important effort to improve public education in Georgia—an effort that reflects not only the education policy of this State’s elected representatives but also the national education policy of the Obama Administration.”

EFFECT ON CHARTER SCHOOLS

First and foremost, we want to make clear that this decision does not affect ALL of Georgia’s charter schools. For over 160 charter schools with over 65,000 students approved by their local school district, this ruling HAS ABSOLUTELY NO EFFECT. Those schools will continue to operate as usual. Families and children planning to attend these schools now and in the next school year have no reason to fear that the school will not be there.  Again, this ruling has no effect on those charter schools authorized by local school districts.

However, for the 16 schools authorized by the Commission and currently operating within Georgia, we honestly do not know their future.  These schools are some of the highest performing schools in Georgia, serving thousands of students who were not getting the education they deserved before their charter school. 

Schools like Ivy Preparatory Academy, an all-girls school that has produced some of the highest CRCT scores in the State. CCAT-Charter Conservatory for Liberal Arts and Technology, a high school in Bulloch County that yielded some of the highest graduation rates in our State.  Georgia Cyber Academy that has attracted literally thousands of children across Georgia to a most-innovative method of instructing students that might not thrive in the traditional public school. Pataula Charter Academy in rural Edison, Georgia who has reached out to a five-county region for students who have been excelling through the Expeditionary Learning Model employed by the school. Peachtree Hope Charter School that has provided more than 600 students in urban Atlanta who had no hope in their previous schools with a new sense of pride in learning and achievement and the belief instilled that they could accomplish anything they choose in life, regardless of race or economic status.   The success of all those students and thousands of others in Charter Commission schools is threatened by this ruling.

We must establish how the decision of the Court will be handled by the State’s Department of Education. Our greatest fear is that this ruling could have the impact of closing all Commission approved schools and perhaps even make System Charters unconstitutional using a strict reading of the Majority Opinion and their giving local school boards first and final approval to charter school approval and removing from the State ANY authority to approve charter schools. We appreciate the quick offer of our State School Superintendent Dr. John Barge who said “the state stands ready to help in whatever way necessary to ensure that the education of the students in these schools is not compromised.”  He went on to pledge that he “will be working closely with the State Board of Education to see what flexibility can be offered for these schools.”

It is important to remember that the Charter School Commission was created after local school districts began blocking the development of all charter schools.  For those educators, parents, and leaders in the community who want to see more charter schools in their community and across the state, this ruling puts us right back where we were pre-HB881 (2008) where only local school districts can approve charter schools.  The year prior to the law establishing the Georgia Charter Schools Commission, 26 charter petitions were submitted to local school districts and all 26 charter petitions were denied. This was the pattern, not the anomaly, of local school districts.  In their wisdom and thinking of the needs of Georgia citizens, the legislature and Governor corrected this problem with the Georgia Charter Schools Commission. But now we are right back where those with great hopes and plans to have a quality charter school are at the mercy of local school districts, the majority of which have been openly hostile towards public charter schools.

NEXT STEPS

The great and continuing need for our children to have educational options like charter schools has not been stricken down by the Courts. So we will work with parents across the throughout Georgia to become a strong and united voice to do whatever it takes to make more charter schools available across the State. If it takes further legislative action, including a Constitutional amendment, I am announcing that that effort begins TODAY. We need our parents and students to let their voices be heard about charter schools. And we will assist them to make this a State priority!

We will begin tomorrow on the steps of the Georgia State Capitol with a major rally starting at 10:30 am. We want all our state decision makers to hear the LOUD voice of parents begging, pleading and urging that our State provide more charter schools to meet the growing demand.

We will work with G-PAN, the parental advocacy group, to help organize parents and bring about needed changes in our States. We will work with our Governor, our legislature, our State School Superintendent and the state board of education legislation (all of whom support our children and charter schools). We believe Governor Deal and our legislature will pursue whatever remedies are necessary including possibly a change to our Constitution, to insure that our state continues to develop more high-quality charter schools.

We will not rest until we see this fixed and all of the children of Georgia having the opportunity to attend a high-quality charter school when that is their choice.

Tony Roberts, CEO

STATEMENT FROM CHEROKEE COUNTY SCHOOL DISTRICT

The school board attorney and staff are analyzing today’s Georgia Supreme Court decision regarding charter schools and its potential impact. After these analyses are complete, information will be shared with the school board and others who are interested. All current state laws and policies regarding charter schools will continue to be adhered to by the school district.

Dr. Frank R. Petruzielo, superintendent 

STATEMENT FROM GEORGIA DEPARTMENT OF EDUCATION CHARTER SCHOOLS DIVISION

We are working with the Attorney General's office to determine the timing and effect of today's Supreme Court ruling on the status of the currently operating and the new Commission schools and the options they have moving forward.

Louis Erste, director

Rodney Thrash May 16, 2011 at 10:07 PM
We're looking for folks from Cherokee County who are heading to the Capitol on Tuesday for the big charter school protest. Email rodney.thrash@patch.com if you're planning to make the trek to Atlanta.
Georgia Moderate May 16, 2011 at 10:12 PM
I have certainly done my homework on charter school success. Although some charter schools do provide excellent results, as a whole, they tend to perform at similar levels to public schools. Don't forget that these are private schools funded by the state with taxpayers dollars, much like the "funding" we provide to oil companies in form of subsidies. So, I stand by my comparison between American Heritage and Charter Schools USA. They can and do fail. Public schools are constantly challenged by a variety of factors, including charters, as I noted with my comment on the competitive aspects, and when they fail from an academic standpoint, like we've seen with too many school systems in Georgia, there is a significant amount of scrutiny brought to bear. What is sad is that parents don't really care until it's too late. If we insist on quality education and keep the pressure year round, and bring quality teachers and administrators to the table, we see success. We've got that in Cherokee, so tell me what you really mean when you say "choice." I keep hearing this rhetoric, and it sounds more like empty platitudes, since public schools can be designed to provide broader educational choices, if parents wish them to offer things such as virtual classes, etc. And Cherokee schools perform highly on a national basis, rather than at a state level, so I don't buy that comparison.
Ms. Teacher May 17, 2011 at 01:50 PM
I feel the state made the right call. . .I know that is a hard statement to hear! But, I think that charter schools actually contribute to the growing gap between at risk students and everyone else. I think that we should protest to change ALL of our public schools. I wrote about it here: http://artfulartsyamy.blogspot.com/2011/05/stand-up-for-education.html
cherokee co resident May 18, 2011 at 07:26 PM
One interesting question occurs to me about how a building meant for 600 students would accomodate close to 1000 and thus how this situation would offer much of an alternative to the current Cherokee County schools and concerns parents might have with overcrowding and large classes. As for data on how charter schools measure up and whether or not they ourperform public schools - interested readers might find this article from the AJC informative ... http://blogs.ajc.com/get-schooled-blog/2010/03/24/latest-charter-school-review-look-before-you-leap/
JustMe June 13, 2011 at 02:17 PM
Georgia Moderate, You should re-post your statement to one of the latest news entries in the charter school "debate". I could not have said it better, as many of us Cherokee Co. school parents believe. Don't take funding away from the public school system - push to make changes in what we already have.

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