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Private companies in line to run charter schools

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ATLANTA --- The number of private companies running public schools in Georgia could jump next month.

There are 34 applications for charter schools awaiting approval, 19 that would be run by private companies, and many would enroll students from anywhere in the state via the Internet. The Georgia Charter Schools Commission is interviewing the applicants and hearing from local school districts that oppose them.

The debate revolves around profits. Advocates say the aim to make a profit gives the companies incentive to perform well, especially since enrollment is voluntary.

"People don't have to come here; we'd better do a good job or they won't chose to come here," said Tony Roberts, the president of the Georgia Charter Schools Association.

Critics say profits can tempt the companies to skimp on quality by hiring weak teachers and offering fewer resources.

"They see public education as a windfall for their bottom line, and they are taking what is an education crisis in Georgia and the nation and trying to make a buck," said Jeff Hubbard, the president of the Georgia Association of Educators. "They see children as profit margins."

Legislation enacted this year created the commission and the authority to grant charters over the objection of local boards.

The law also gives the commission power to withhold some of a local district's state funding and direct it to a charter school to ensure students receive the same funding they would be eligible for in a traditional district school. The withholding of funds is the subject of a lawsuit that's pending in Fulton County Superior Court.

National companies often have more experience than most community leaders or parents who typically hope to start charter schools. And the companies also have a track record that allows them to get funding from banks, a critical element in the success of startup schools, experts say.

Those company procedures might get new schools off to a smooth start, but they also tend to limit flexibility, the very reason for starting a charter school. A charter exempts public schools from state and local rules in exchange for promised goals for student performance.

Performance in established charter schools has been high, state statistics show.

Reach Walter Jones at walter.jones@morris.com.

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