Georgia legislation would give more money to state charter schools

A proposal in the Georgia General Assembly would give more money to state charter schools, which get less money per student than traditional public schools yet must outperform traditional schools or risk losing their charters.

The State Charter Schools Commission was created by a 2012 constitutional amendment as an alternative to local districts for would-be charter schools seeking authority -- and public funding -- to educate children. But lawmakers at that time were cautious and gave the agency less money per pupil.

People feared a proliferation of state charter schools, said Rep. Jan Jones, R-Milton, who sponsored the legislation that established the commission. But the commission has been cautious in giving charters, said Jones, a ranking member of the House as speaker pro tempore. Now, it’s time to give their schools more money, she said in an interview after she attended Wednesday’s hearing. “Some people say money doesn’t matter, but you have to have enough.”

Public schools are funded with state and local dollars, with a bit of federal money mixed in. An education funding formula ensures that the state portion of the money that goes to commission schools is equivalent to what a traditional school would receive.

State charter schools receive no local funding, though, so the 2012 law tried to make up for that by establishing a state supplement. The supplement equals the average per-pupil local funding of the state’s five poorest school systems.

The new legislation, House Bill 787, sets the state supplement at the average per-pupil local funding for all 180 school districts. It will cost about $10 million more, estimated Bonnie Holliday, executive director of the state charter commission. The legislation also boosts funding for school building costs in expensive parts of the state by about $1 million, she said. And it adds about $5 million for computers at online schools.

The bill is sponsored by Rep. Scott Hilton, R-Peachtree Corners. He said state charter school students are being educated “on the cheap.” The increase in state funding would not take money away from other public school students, he said, because it would not come out of the $9 billion state education budget dictated by the school funding formula. Rather, it would come from the overall general fund, which is about three times that amount. He called his proposed increase a relative “drop in the bucket.”

But the cost was a concern for several members of the House subcommittee. “If we’re going to increase the size of the pie, we’re going to have to put more money into the making of it,” said Rep. Howard Maxwell, R-Dallas.

No member of the public or lobbyist got up to  speak against the legislation, but the critics will surely appear if the bill becomes law and causes bigger shortages in the education budget. Competition for state dollars has led the governor and the legislature to short the state education funding formula by more than $166 million for two years, and by more before that.

Even so, the education subcommittee voted to send the bill to the full House education committee.

Tony Roberts, the president and CEO of the Georgia Charter Schools Association, said the increased funding is the fair thing to do for state charter schools. “They have to have better than state average results,” he said, “but we’re asking them to do it with the lowest state funding.”