Ga. lawmakers OK charter school amendment

ATLANTA — State lawmakers are a step closer to passing a constitutional amendment addressing a Georgia Supreme Court ruling that disbanded the state’s charter school commission last year.

The legislation approved by the House Education Committee on Thursday would allow the state to create charter schools and to fund them.

It also would enable state legislators to pass laws creating education policy, something that long has been a practice in Georgia but is not expressly stated in the state’s constitution. The practice was called into question in the ruling from the state’s highest court.

The constitutional amendment must be passed by a two-thirds majority in the House and Senate before it goes to voters for approval. The legislation now goes to the rules committee for possible placement on the full House calendar.

“We are simply changing the constitution to actions that y’all have been supportive of for the last 14 years,” House Speaker Pro Tem Jan Jones, the bill’s sponsor, told the committee during Thursday’s hearing.

The court ruled in May that the Georgia Charter Schools Commission, created by the legislature in 2008, was unconstitutional because it approved and granted local tax dollars to charter schools over the objection of local school boards. The court also ruled that local school boards have sole control over public K-12 education and that only in rare cases the state Board of Education can create schools.

Charter schools are publicly funded but are given flexibility to determine how they meet state standards. Parents, community members and business leaders can petition local school boards to create a charter school.

The Supreme Court’s vote put 16 schools created by the commission in danger of closing. Those schools enroll about 15,000 students.

Supporters of the amendment say the charter schools commission is necessary because local districts were rejecting charter petitions simply to do away with any competition for money. The year before the commission was created by lawmakers, charter school supporters had submitted 26 petitions to local school districts, and all 26 were denied.

“I don’t think we want most charter schools to be state authorized schools — we want to continue to encourage local boards to authorize them,” said Jones, a Republican from Milton. “I would simply suggest that the numbers show they haven’t done that.”

Opponents — including many of the education associations in the state — say the state should focus on improving funding for existing public school districts before passing laws that could usher in dozens of new charter schools to further drain scarce resources.

“My concern is we will continue to penalize schools systems who are currently underfunded with what think is the new thing that’s going to improve education,” said state Rep. Brian Thomas, a Democrat from Lilburn who is on the House Education Committee.

Tim Callahan with the Professional Association of Georgia Educators, which has more than 82,000 members across the state, said the amendment will end up “forcing local taxpayers to fund schools their local board did not approve.”

But Tony Roberts, head of the Georgia Charter Schools Association, said the amendment is the best way to address issues created by the Supreme Court’s ruling.

“The only intent of this is to allow a vote of the general public,” he said. “If you want to get down to local control, the local voters are it.”