Q & A on HB 797 and HR 1162

June 8, 2012

House Resolution 1162 and House Bill 797
Q & A

Why does Georgia need a constitutional amendment on public education this year?

A divided 4-3 Georgia Supreme Court decision in 2011 jeopardized Georgia’s ability to establish statewide K-12 public education policy.  Secondarily, the decision also narrowed the state’s general ability to authorize public charter schools, an authority it had exercised for 10 years.

If challenged in court, the decision calls into question whether state government has any meaningful role in public education, except, perhaps, for putting a check in the mail.  State taxpayers cover half the cost of K-12 public education through sales and income taxes. The court decision has placed state taxpayers in the questionable position of taxation without being able to demand accountability from the recipients of state monies. K-12 education accounts for almost half of the state’s $18 billion yearly budget.

Without a constitutional amendment, many laws on the books that teachers and parents rely upon could be subject to successful litigation as pointed out in the Supreme Court’s minority opinion, by the Attorney General and the legislature’s education attorney.

What led to the Supreme Court decision?

The Court decision resulted from several school boards challenging the constitutionality of 2008 state legislation, which revised how the state approved and funded charter schools.  Initially, a Fulton County Superior Court judge threw out the school boards’ case, ruling it was without merit. The school boards appealed to the state supreme court, which ruled 4-3 in their favor.

The broad Court opinion explicitly stated that school boards have exclusive control over general K-12 education.  For emphasis, the opinion re-stated that local boards have exclusive control six separate times, even though the word “exclusive” does not appear in the state constitution.

Why is it important that the state and local school boards have a shared partnership in public education?

Most people agree that local school boards play a critical role in public education. Most people also agree, however, that local school boards should not have exclusive control over public education. The broad court decision deviated sharply from the state’s historically significant role in public education, including funding half its costs, imposing class restrictions, establishing graduation standards and providing a teacher pay scale and retirement system.

Businesses considering relocating to Georgia place a top priority on an overall educated workforce. Clearly, we have a state education brand to foster and protect in attracting jobs. This is why the Georgia Chamber of Commerce supported passage of HR 1162 as one of its highest priorities.

How would the constitutional amendment fix this?

House Resolution 1162 would re-assert the state’s partnership role in public education through a constitutional amendment. The resolution says, “the General Assembly may…provide for the establishment of education policies for such public education.”  HR 1162 would clarify the Constitution in the way most people thought existed prior to the Court’s action.

What does this have to do with the state authorizing public charter schools?

The headline-grabbing issue is that the constitutional amendment would give the state the same latitude to approve charter schools that it possessed previously.
The Court decision narrowed the state’s ability to authorize public charter schools, a practice exercised prudently for over 10 years. Since 2008, only 12 state charter schools opened.

The constitutional amendment says, “Special schools may include charter schools; provided, however, that special schools shall only be public schools.”  As background, special schools are already included in a provision in the state constitution and refer to schools that are not approved and operated by local school boards.

A substitute to HR 1162 explicitly prohibits a reduction in state funds to a specific school system as a result of a student within that school system’s geographical boundary attending a state charter school. The resolution also provides a definition of a state public charter school.

House Bill 797 spelled out how charter schools will be authorized and funded by the state going forward.

What’s compelling about optional public charter schools?

Optional public charter schools bring additional educational opportunities to students and communities. For example, technical colleges covering several counties, as is typically the case in rural Georgia, can partner with charter schools to offer vocational certification while students are still in high school. Charter schools, in some instances, place added focus on science and math, vocational or International Baccalaureate certification, or the arts. They may offer a longer day and extra tutoring.
Parents, though, choose whether their children attend optional public charter schools putting “local control” where it counts the most – with parents. A public charter school puts decision making in parents’ hands recognizing that one-size-fits-all education is not suitable for all children.

The state would only authorize public charter schools that would be run by non-profit organizations. Local citizens and parents would comprise the non-profit boards.
The same flexibility is offered to public school teachers that choose to teach in public charter schools. They can choose to teach in traditional schools or public charter schools.  In both cases, Georgia teachers are included, by current law, in state retirement and health plans.

Why should the state authorize public charter schools in addition to local school boards?

History has shown that charter schools are better performing, stronger and more apt to grow if school districts are not the sole authorizer allowed by law.  Most states allow the state to authorize public charter schools.

The problem is that local school boards often do not choose or want to approve charter schools, even when quality applications with strong community support are offered.  Cherokee County denied an application last year despite strong local support. Parents requesting space for their children exceeded the openings twofold. In fact, the first public charter school in Georgia and located in Statesboro was approved by the state 10 years ago after being denied four years in a row by the local school board.  Gwinnett County recently denied Ivy Prep charter school for a second time, even though it is one of the most successful middle schools in the state and has a highly diverse, mostly low income student population.  Another, Pataula Academy, in southwest Georgia attracts students from six counties.

In 2007, local school boards denied every single start-up charter school application. In 2008, 25 of 27 were denied. Since 2008 only four have been approved.  Less than two percent of Georgia students have access to a public charter school even though polls show many families would like the option. Of 16 state-authorized schools (either approved by the state board or former charter commission), six are physically located in rural areas outside the metro Atlanta area.  Additionally, the two virtual schools and the Department of Juvenile Justice school have statewide draws. State charter schools have a more diverse student population and more students qualify for free or reduced lunch than the state average.

Charter schools often do not fit within attendance lines attracting students across multiple school districts. A Georgia research university has expressed interest in partnering its school of education with a charter school and would serve students from a broad geographical region. This would not be possible without state authorization.

How will state charter students be authorized and funded under House Bill 797?

The legislation spells out conditions under which the state could approve charter schools.

The legislation clearly re-states that local funding may not be used. The legislation also clearly forbids state funds from being deducted specifically from the respective school district in which a student lives.  This is different from how state funds were allocated in the 2008 legislation. It spells out a funding formula utilizing only state funds, and it will be the same for all state charter students regardless of their geographical home.