3 charter schools close in on funding eligibilty

Three state-chartered schools pinching pennies to keep the doors open can now qualify for a financial injection of local dollars to educate students.

Ivy Preparatory Academy in Norcross, the Scholars Academy State Elementary in Riverdale and Statesboro's Charter Conservatory for Liberal Arts and Technology are one step closer to becoming Georgia's first commission-chartered schools, a designation that comes with a budget windfall.

The state Board of Education on Thursday unanimously cleared the way for the three state-chartered special schools to petition the Georgia Charter Schools Commission for reauthorization. As state-chartered schools, Ivy Prep, Scholars Academy and CCAT were cash-strapped because they could not receive local funding. As commission charters, they could receive state, federal — and local — dollars like any other public schools in their districts.

"We are excited," said Kathy Harwood, superintendent, principal and a founder of CCAT, which opened seven years ago. "We have been hoping for equal funding for a very long time."

On June 18, the commission meets to vote on its first class of charter schools. Its approval could give the state an edge in the competition for federal money to support education reform. President Barack Obama has asked states to encourage the expansion of quality charter schools, praising their success in helping struggling students. Obama has set aside $4.35 billion in grants from the Race to the Top Fund to help states support innovative programs including charters that help to close the achievement gap.

The U.S. secretary of education warned earlier this week that states who stunt the growth of charter schools with caps or who have no charter school authorization laws will "jeopardize their applications" for the funds.

With Georgia's growing charter landscape, Andrew Broy, a state associate superintendent, said the state should be a front-runner for the funds. "I think we will start at the top in the race to the top."

Georgia has 113 charter schools.

Nina Gilbert, head of school at Ivy Prep, expected to grow to 300 students in the fall, is hoping federal support for charters could prevent a potential lawsuit from being filed by Georgia school leaders who oppose sharing local funds with charter schools they didn't approve.

Officials with the Georgia School Superintendents Association have said some of their members question the constitutionality of the commission's ability to divvy local funds.

"It is very encouraging to know that our president and the Secretary of Education Arne Duncan support schools like ours — startup charter schools that have become incubators of innovation," Gilbert said.

Gilbert called the state board's show of support Thursday a "milestone" and said that as far as any lawsuit, "we will take the challenges as they come."

Harwood agreed. CCAT, which had about 125 students last school year, receives between $4,000 and $4,500 per pupil from the state. With local dollars, Harwood said her bottom line could grow significantly. She said her local school district receives between $7,800 and more than $8,000 per student.

Officials with the Georgia Charter Schools Association stand ready to aid the commission candidates should a lawsuit target their funding.

"It is not fair that some taxpayers' children would only get half the funding of others in public schools,'' said Tony Roberts, CEO of the association.