Challenge to charter school law on docket

Top Georgia court to hear appeal of funding

ATLANTA --- The first ever legal challenge to the state's charter school law goes before the Georgia's highest court this week.


Seven public school districts hope to persuade the Georgia Supreme Court to overturn a ruling by Fulton County Superior Court Judge Wendy Shoob. She ruled from the bench in May that the Georgia Charter Schools Commission is constitutional and not breaking any laws.

Attorneys for the districts filed an appeal, hoping to prove the commission is creating an independent school system prohibited by the state constitution and is unfairly taking money away from the districts and giving it to charter schools.

Thirty-seven other school districts are supporting the appeal. The Supreme Court is scheduled to hear the case Tuesday afternoon.

Charter schools receive public support but are not subject to many regulations that apply to conventional public schools.

Even if a local school district turns down a charter school petition, state law allows the commission to approve it and move funding from the school district to the charter school's coffers.

The school districts say the commission is actually taking local tax dollars without the approval of local taxpayers.

They argue that for every student who goes to a charter school the state reduces the support it would ordinarily send for that student, along with an amount equal to the local tax revenue that would be set aside for that student.

For the state's largest district, Gwinnett County, which is part of the lawsuit, that meant a loss of $850,000 in a year when state funding for education was slashed by hundreds of millions of dollars.

"This is a shell game created by this bill to capture local funds without the local board allowing it," said Herb Garrett, the executive director of the Georgia School Superintendents Association.

Charter school advocates disagree.

"The money spent on the charter commission schools is state-raised money," said Tony Roberts, the president of the Georgia Charter Schools Association. "I don't know how they would say that's local money."

The districts in the lawsuit are among the state's largest -- Gwinnett County, DeKalb County and the Atlanta Public Schools -- as well as smaller districts such as Bulloch, Henry, Candler and Griffin-Spalding schools.

In Bulloch County, which has a commission-approved charter school, the district is losing $400,000 a year because of students attending the school. The 9,500-student district raised its millage rate to make up for the difference and avoid getting rid of seven teachers, said Superintendent Lewis Holloway.

"We're not against charter schools," Holloway said. "We're against the state arbitrarily pulling dollars out of our school system."