House wants state role in new charter schools

ATLANTA - The House passed legislation Thursday aimed at making it easier for individuals or groups in a community to start a charter school.

The bill, which passed 119-48 and now goes to the Senate, would create a state commission to review charter school applications and approve those it deems fit.

Charter schools have been in Georgia for years as a public school alternative to traditional schools. They are granted some flexibility from meeting state and federal requirements as long as they achieve the results agreed upon in their charters.

The bill was sparked by the "indifferent" and even "hostile" attitudes local school boards have shown toward charter schools, said Rep. Jan Jones, R-Alpharetta, the measure's chief sponsor.

She said local boards approved only two of 28 charter school applications this past year.

Jones accused local systems of being reluctant to approve charter schools because they don't want the competition.

"Rarely would a Wal-Mart approve a Kmart to compete with them," she said.

But opponents complained that setting up a state commission with the power to overrule local school boards on charter schools would remove control from local decision-makers in the best position to understand the educational needs of their communities.

"It's one more example of saying we in Atlanta know what's best for your district more than you do," said Rep. Mike Keown, R-Coolidge.

While House Republican leaders pushed for the bill, Thursday's debate didn't break down along party lines.

While the GOP's Keown spoke out against it, several Democrats took to the well in support of the legislation.

Rep. Freddie Powell Sims, D-Albany, a retired teacher, said charter schools have become a fixture in Georgia and elsewhere because they're doing a better job than other public schools.

"The charter school movement is here to stay because it does not embrace a one-size-fits-all philosophy," she said. "Charter schools provide flexibility and accountability ... lacking in most traditional classrooms."

Rep. Brooks Coleman, R-Duluth, chairman of the House Education and a former teacher and administrator for the Gwinnett County Public Schools, turned the tables on the local-control argument. He accused the school board lobby of being self serving in its opposition to the bill.

"What they want is total control, not local control," Coleman said.

The proposed commission would consist of seven members appointed by the state Board of Education.

Three of the appointees would be recommended by the governor and two each by the lieutenant governor and speaker of the House.