Georgia House passes several bills to help charter schools

Getting the money to start a charter school in Georgia could be a bit easier if a bill recently passed by the Georgia House of Representatives becomes law.

House Bill 897, sponsored by Rep. Mike Dudgeon, R-Johns Creek, would allow the State Charter Schools Commission to set up a nonprofit foundation to assist charter schools.

Some school districts and individual traditional public schools already have such foundations to accept charitable contributions.

Money for facilities and to complete the paperwork associated with applying for a charter is a major roadblock for those who want to start a charter school. If HB 897 becomes law — it passed the House by a vote of 120-51 and is likely to find a receptive audience in the Senate — the State Charter Schools Commission would be able to set up a foundation that would use private contributions to give charter schools start-up grants.

Charter schools are public schools given organizational and instructional flexibility in exchange for a promise to pursue specific academic targets. Supporters see them as an alternative for students trapped in underperforming traditional public schools. Others say that charters are too often held up as a sort of cure for public education. They complain that the focus on them comes at the expense of traditional public schools, where the vast majority of Georgia students are educated.

There were 310 charter schools in Georgia during the 2012-2013 school year, according to an annual report on charters compiled by the state Department of Education. Most of those charter schools were approved by local school boards and share funding with the traditional public schools those boards oversee.

But 18 charter schools got their approval from the state, a number that could rise with more financial assistance.

Some public school groups have privately expressed frustration with the efforts of state legislators to assist charter schools.

In addition to laying the groundwork for more financial help for charters, H.B. 897 also established a specific threshold for when charter schools must be given the right of first refusal to buy underused school facilities from school districts. That aspect of the bill only covers charter schools approved by local school districts.

School districts would not be compelled to sell underused facilities. But they would have to give charter schools the right of first refusal in buying facilities where 40 percent or less of the facilities’ capacity is being used for student instruction.

Charter schools could buy those facilities at or below market value, HB 897 states.

HB 897 wasn’t the only charter bill the House passed this week.

House Bill 886 would require school districts and charter schools to hold at least two public hearings on proposed budgets. It passed the House by a vote of 164-3.

House Bill 405, passed by a vote of 155-20, would require charter school governing board members to undergo governance training. That’s already a requirement for school board members in Georgia.

“It is my belief that we ought to bring charter schools up to the same standards (as schools boards),” said Rep. Rahn Mayo, D-Decatur.

Charter school groups worked with Mayo in crafting the bill, and no one spoke against it on the House floor.

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