Charter schools under false attack

Five school districts have filed suit against the state of Georgia claiming that the creation and operation of the Georgia Charter Schools Commission is unconstitutional.

Additionally, they seek the closure of two charter schools authorized by the commission: Ivy Preparatory Academy in Gwinnett County and Charter Conservatory for the Arts and Technology in Bulloch County.

We believe that their suits are not only unfounded, but also a slap in the face to the parents and students who have decided to pursue the best public education possible.

First, we must understand what charter schools are. They are free, public, open enrollment schools that any student can attend. They cannot exclude students, they cannot charge tuition, and — like public schools everywhere — they must serve all students who wish to enroll in the school.

We also cannot forget that the commission was made necessary by local district denials of charter school applications. Prior to the creation of the commission, the approval rate for independent, public charter schools by local school districts was abysmal.

Local districts engaged in wholesale denials of charter school petitions with the weak rationale that the new schools would “not be in the best interests of the district.” Districts had no incentive to give objective and fair consideration of proposed charter schools. And most did not. The commission merely creates a level playing field for charter approval.

The districts might have stronger justification if there were not widespread problems with student achievement and graduation rates in traditional public schools.

While Georgia student achievement and graduation rates appear to be moving upward, there are still a lot of schools that do not serve their students well.

So, this issue really becomes, “shall we force children to continue attending schools that fail them?” The intent of the commission is to allow parents an option to seek a better education for their children in charter schools which, by the way, have graduation rates that far exceed state averages while serving a population more likely to be poor.

Ultimately, the lawsuit is about money. None of the districts had any problem when charter schools were authorized and funded at less than half the amount of funding compared to traditional public schools.

Only after the Legislature decided that charter schools should be funded equitably did they file suit.

But how does it make any sense for a district to retain state money for students it no longer teaches? The commission merely allows money to follow the child. Any opposite conclusion flies in the face of all notions of fairness and efficiency.

Districts further claim that the commission usurps their authority to control all public schools within their district and that this violates the Georgia Constitution.

Throughout the legislative process, numerous constitutional and legal experts reviewed the commission bill and deemed it fully constitutional. To be sure, the majority of our state legislators had no concerns about the bill’s constitutionality when they passed it. Neither did Gov. Sonny Perdue when he signed it into law.

These plaintiff districts think the constitution gave them a monopoly on public education. Their fallacious argument is that the state has yielded total authority for public education over to the districts.

However, Article VIII, Section I, Paragraph 1 of the constitution makes the state’s position very clear: “The provision of an adequate public education for the citizens shall be a primary obligation of the state of Georgia.”

The citizens of Georgia want and deserve the best educational opportunities that their tax funds can provide. Ivy Preparatory Academy in Norcross and Charter Conservatory for the Arts and Technology are shining examples of what can be accomplished in public education.

After its first year of operation, Ivy Prep has established itself as one of the top middle schools in the state.

This ethnically and socioeconomically diverse, all-girls school had more than 90 percent of its inaugural sixth-grade class meet or exceed CRCT standards in reading, English/language arts and math, a performance that rivaled or bested other public schools in the Gwinnett school district.

CCAT consistently graduates 100 percent of its students, outperforming both of the two traditional public high schools in Bulloch County and significantly higher than the state average.

Additionally, the number of students enrolling in college after graduation from CCAT is a full 20 percent higher than the state average.

It is no secret that charter schools in Georgia, especially independent public charter schools, outperform their peers in traditional public schools statewide. The opponents of charter schools claim that having charter schools harms the traditional public schools.

However, these opponents have not produced a single study that supports that claim. To the contrary, several university studies have concluded that the presence of quality charter schools increases the health and performance of traditional public schools.

There’s a lot more riding on this suit than the settling of a theoretical constitutional question.

The most basic and most important question is: “What is best for the children?”