State Charter Schools Commission puts off vote on new online charter school

The State Charter Schools Commission broke precedence today by declining to vote on a charter school that its staff recommended denying.
The State Charter Schools Commission broke precedence today by declining to vote on a charter school that its staff recommended denying.

Commission takes unprecedented step of tabling action on denial recommendation from its staff

Today's decision by the State Charter Schools Commission to table a vote on an online public school with as many as 8,000 students was the first time commissioners didn't act on a staff recommendation on a proposed charter.

After reviewing the application for Destinations Career Academy and meeting with its attorney and board members, the commission's staff recommended denial of the petition.

However, after lengthy debate this morning, the commission instead voted to table action on the virtual school, which, if ultimately approved, would become the second largest public school in the state.

The vote was 3 to 2 in favor of tabling a vote on the proposal. Playing key roles were two former legislators recently appointed to the commission, created six years ago to approve and fund charter schools. Both new appointees are seen as strong choice advocates.

Former House member Buzz Brockway introduced the motion to table any action. Former state Sen. Hunter Hill urged the commission to break with the past practice of acting on its staff reviews and recommendations and hold off on a formal vote on Destinations --  in part to spare the applicant the stigma of a denial. Hill emphasized his support of the motion to table should not be seen as a vote of approval.

The debate and the vote to table came after a bid for more time by Destinations. The attorney for Destinations sought a two-month reprieve so the school could better prepare its board members and shore up its petition “to see if a different conclusion can be reached in September.”

Attorney Eric M. Teusink acknowledged the poor performance of the board members who met with the commission staff to answer questions about design, finances and management.

“I wish our board chair had been there as she was the most well versed. I came out of the meeting with the commission staff saying these board members are green and we needed more work. Based on that exact moment, I can’t say that if I had been staff, I wouldn’t have made the same recommendation,” said Teusink.

Destinations wants to offer a career-focused curriculum starting in kindergarten. Teusink said Destinations could meet the urgent need for more technical education in Georgia.

The petition for Destinations is backed by K12 Inc., a publicly traded corporation with scores of online schools around the country and a dismal track record of academic performance by those schools.

One of them is Georgia Cyber Academy, which is this state's largest public school in enrollment. As my colleague Ty Tagami reported:

Georgia Cyber is at risk of closure due to its history of poor academic performance. The company and the school's board are embroiled in a contractual dispute following recent board decisions aimed at turning the school around. The board has reduced K12's role in — and revenue from — the school… The state and federal governments sent about $90 million in public funds to Georgia Cyber Academy this past year. It has been among the largest in K12's portfolio.

Nationwide, virtual charter schools have been an expensive failure in the k-12 realm. There is no evidence virtual schooling will succeed with technical education, where hands-on learning, mentoring and close supervision are critical to mastering the trades that pay well, such as HVAC, welding and auto mechanics.

At this point, there is no track record by which to judge how well an online school can deliver vocational-technical classes.

It would seem to make sense to deny a charter petition that would direct millions of taxpayer dollars to an untried online school in which members of the governing board could not answer critical questions. But a commissioner described the vote to disregard the staff’s recommendation as a positive step for school choice in Georgia.

Longtime commissioner Tony Lowden declared the motion to table any action on Destinations a "seismic earthquake shift in choice…for people who believe in choice, it is going to be a new day in Georgia." Lowden said 10 other charter applicants who withdrew rather than risk commission denial will now be calling for similar motions to table.

However, another veteran pointed out no one is served if the commission approves charter schools that fail. Vice chair Paul Williams cautioned, "The worst enemy of our movement is a school that is not ready to succeed."

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