Charter school legislation clarifies access to funding, "unused” buildings

Easier access to money and school buildings are among the benefits for charter schools of proposed changes to Georgia education law.

House Bill 430 is being praised by advocates for more than 60,000 students in more than 90  independent charter schools -- public schools that operate under authority of contracts with local school districts or with the State Charter Schools Commission.

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“We’re extremely happy with this version of the bill,” said Tony Roberts, president and chief executive officer of the Georgia Charter Schools Association. It addresses “significant concerns,” he said, such as the transparency of school district reporting on funding owed their charter schools.

The legislation, which was passed Wednesday by the Senate Education and Youth Committee, compels school districts to pass along federal dollars on a proportional basis and mandates clearer reporting on dollars per student. Currently, districts can instead give in-kind services, such as federally funded teacher training that may not be relevant to a charter school. Under this bill, school districts must give charter schools their share of the money the districts get through the federal anti-poverty, teacher training and English language learning programs.

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The bill also establishes an annual facilities improvement grant of up to $100,000 per school though there is no money currently in the budget for it.

HB 430, by Rep. Buzz Brockway, R-Lawrenceville, also makes it easier for charter schools that feel they have been treated unfairly to switch “authorizers.” Typically, charters get approved by local school districts, but this legislation makes it easier for the schools to opt instead for approval by the State Charter Schools Commission, which was established by voters by a 2012 referendum.

Finally, the bill compels school districts to turn over unused school buildings to charter schools requesting them. That’s already in law, but the definition of “unused” isn’t as clearly defined as this bill proposes. The legislation defines it as vacant for two years and absent from school district’s detailed five-year plans on file with the Georgia Department of Education.

Sen. Fran Millar, R-Dunwoody, a member of the Senate committee, said districts have exploited the vague definition to hang onto buildings. “I’ve had vacant buildings out where I live that they didn’t do a darn thing with,” he said.

Dunwoody is in the DeKalb County School District, which has had several superintendents in recent years. Steve Green, the current one, said the district under his leadership has a “very collaborative and supportive” rapport with charter schools, has helped them find and maintain facilities and has provided productivity software and other technical support.

“The past is the past and there is not much we can do about that,” he said.

To become law, the legislation must be approved by the full Senate. Then, the House of Representatives, which approved an earlier version, must sign off on the Senate changes. Then, it’ll be up to Gov. Nathan Deal, whose 2015 Education Reform Commission recommended some of the policies in HB 430.

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