Power and money trump students

Deja Hulbert and her parents wanted better.

In simplest terms, that’s why she chose to attend Ivy Preparatory Charter Academy last school year for sixth grade.

During an impassioned speech to the Gwinnett County school board in October, Deja talked about the dismal fate that snared many girls like her who attend her zoned middle school — teen pregnancy, low expectations from teachers and administrators and educational indifference.

Now a seventh grader, Deja is thriving at Ivy Prep, as are the vast majority of her 300-plus “sisters” at the all-girls charter middle school in Norcross.

However, as inconceivable as it sounds, there are those who would like to see this ethnically and racially diverse school closed, and see Deja and her sisters returned to their zoned schools.

School board members in Gwinnett and DeKalb counties and the city of Atlanta, as well as in Bulloch and Candler counties in southeast Georgia, have filed a lawsuit to dissolve the state Charter School Commission, the two highly successful schools it has already approved — Ivy Prep and the Charter Conservatory for Liberal Arts and Technology in Statesboro — and the seven others it has approved for 2010-11.

Supporters of the lawsuit make a number of unsubstantiated claims. But their main points of contention are money and power.

Actually, what they really have a problem with is their lack of control over money and power.

On the issue of “power,” these misguided school boards falsely claim that the creation of the commission was unconstitutional and only local boards of education have the authority (read “power”) to authorize charter schools.

However, Article VIII, Section I, Paragraph 1 of the Georgia Constitution reads: “The provision of an adequate public education for the citizens shall be a primary obligation of the State of Georgia.”

The language here is crystal clear. It does not say that granting charters is the exclusive right and role of local boards.

Indeed, throughout the legislative process during the approval of House Bill 881 — the law that created the Commission — numerous constitutional and legal experts deemed it fully constitutional.

On the issue of money, the authors are disingenuous at worst, flat out wrong at best.

They claim that local dollars are being used to fund commission charter schools, and they attempt to further cloud the issue by infusing the state’s complex public school funding formula into the argument.

Once again, however, the true facts are clear. Charter schools approved by the commission are funded by the state in an amount that is commensurate with funding provided for traditional public schools.

No “local” funds are involved. Period.

Yet as wrongheaded as this position is, it still begs a number of questions: Why were no lawsuits filed, nor outrage expressed, when state-authorized charter schools were funded at less than half the amount of funding compared to traditional public schools?

Were not the children in those schools being “shortchanged” at the time, prior to the creation of the commission? And why would you jeopardize the future of schools like Ivy Prep and Charter Conservatory ?

In a little over a year, 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 the state standards in reading, English/language arts and math, a performance that rivaled or bested other public schools in Gwinnett.

As for Charter Conservatory for Liberal Arts and Technology, the middle/high school consistently graduates 100 percent of its students, a rate higher than 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 the school is a full 20 percent higher than the state average.

The answer to all of these questions is simple. The wishes of the students and their taxpaying parents don’t matter. It’s not about the students.

Instead, the primary concern of the suing school boards, and those of like mind, is not making sure that students like Deja, her sisters at Ivy Prep, her peers at Charter Conservatory and parents throughout Georgia have quality public educational options for their children.

It is not making innovative new learning environments readily available for those students who have not fared well in traditional public schools.

And it is not improving the condition, overall, of public education in our state.

In fact, while we are in the middle of one of the most difficult economic periods in our state’s history, these school districts have chosen to use public tax dollars — dollars that could and should be devoted to teacher salaries and instructional programming — to sue a public school. This clearly, and sadly, illustrates the districts’ true intentions.

Unfortunately, their chief interest appears to be maintaining control over money and power, and continuing to monopolize our public education system, to the detriment of our students — students like Deja, and tens of thousands of others across the state, who simply want more quality educational options.

They want better, and they deserve better from so-called educational leaders.

Tony Roberts is CEO of the Georgia Charter Schools Association.