The Georgia Supreme Court's 4-3 decision overturned the law creating the Georgia Charter Schools Commission, which allowed the state to approve and fund charter schools over the objection of local school boards. The decision promises to reshape how public schools are funded by concluding that only local boards of education have the power to open and pay for public schools.
"We do not in any manner denigrate the goals and aspirations that these efforts reflect. The goals are laudable," wrote Chief Justice Carol Hunstein. "The method used to attain those goals, however, is clearly and palpably unconstitutional."
THE DECISION DOES not affect the 65,000 students attending charter schools approved by their local school districts, including two in Richmond County -- Jenkins-White Charter Elementary and Murphey Charter Middle. The Richmond County Board of Education converted those district-run schools into district-run charters a few years ago. The board has scheduled a called meeting for 4 p.m. today to discuss renewing the charter for Jenkins-White.
Left unclear, however, is the fate of 16 charter schools approved by the commission and three special schools created by the state.
About 16,000 students are now enrolled in the schools, which are scattered across the state.
"We really don't know what happens next," said Tony Roberts, the chief executive of the Georgia Charter School Association.
A DISSENT WRITTEN by Justice David Nahmias warned that the ruling could also abolish "any other 'special school' the General Assembly might dare to create." That means other schools set up by the state, such as those designed for military families, could be abolished, critics say.
"Today four judges have wiped away a small but important effort to improve public education in Georgia -- an effort that reflects not only the education policy of this state's elected representatives but also the national education policy of the Obama Administration," Nahmias wrote.
State Superintendent John Barge said he will be working with the state Board of Education to "see what flexibility can be offered for these schools," and some of the schools are planning to ask local school boards to grant new petitions. But parents are scrambling to figure out the next step.
"I feel like we've worked so hard, we don't want this to end. It's really frustrating to see we may lose this option," said Renee Lord, who has two children at the Georgia Cyber Academy, a school that was approved to enroll 8,500 students next year but is now threatened by the decision. "This really is the one best option for so many families whose children were failing at traditional schools. This school provided an option for so many families across the state that don't have options."
GWINNETT COUNTY School Superintendent Alvin Wilbanks, whose district was among the group that challenged the legislation, said his system is not "anti-charter school" but instead got involved to defend how tax dollars are spent.
Since 1995, local school districts have created dozens of charter schools, which get public support but aren't subject to many regulations that apply to conventional public schools. Some school districts, though, have been skeptical of charter schools that could compete for dollars, attention and students.
The state commission was created in 2008 by frustrated lawmakers who said they were upset local school boards were rejecting charter petitions because they didn't like the competition. A year before, charter school supporters submitted 26 petitions to local school districts -- and all 26 were denied, Roberts said.