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GCPS vs Georgia Charter Schools Commission: System officially files suit

ATLANTA - Gwinnett County Public Schools filed a lawsuit Friday in Fulton County Superior Court challenging the constitutionality of a law that created the Georgia Charter Schools Commission, alleging the district is being illegally forced to fund a Norcross charter school.

The suit is the first in the state to be brought against a 2008 law that created an independent statewide agency to create and fund charter schools, which are public schools designed to operate independent of federal, state and local regulation in exchange for increased accountability in student achievement.

Superintendent J. Alvin Wilbanks said this is not an anti-charter lawsuit; the school system operates two successful charter schools - New Life Academy in Norcross and Gwinnett School of Mathematics, Science and Technology, currently housed at Duluth High - and has plans to add two more.

The only other charter school in Gwinnett County is Ivy Preparatory Academy in Norcross, which opened in August 2008 as a state-chartered special school after its petition was denied by the Gwinnett County Board of Education. Ivy Prep became a Commission-approved charter school in June, therefore becoming eligible to receive additional state funding equal to local revenue from the students' home districts.

The legal complaint purports the law that created the Georgia Charter Schools Commission is unconstitutional, Ivy Prep's charter is null and void, and the state is illegally withholding funding from the school district.

The lawsuit lists State Superintendent of Schools Kathy Cox, the Georgia Department of Education, the Georgia Charter Schools Commission, the chairman and members of the Commission, and Ivy Prep as defendants.

Georgia Department of Education spokesman Dana Tofig said the state agency is aware the Gwinnett school system is challenging the funding mechanism for Commission-approved charter schools.

"We respect Gwinnett's right to challenge this process, but we have not seen any legal documents at this point and cannot comment on the specifics of this case," Tofig said.

Nina Gilbert, founder and head of Ivy Prep, said she is "extremely disappointed that Gwinnett County Public Schools has decided to take this route."

"I felt that we had common missions - to educate students - and I hope that at the end of the day that we agreed on more than we disagreed on. This obviously isn't about (what's best for) students," Gilbert said. "We remain steadfast and totally focused on teaching and learning ... and we will not be distracted. It's really not our fight."

The lawsuit states the amount of funding being withheld for the 216 Gwinnett County students attending Ivy Prep is disproportionate to the amount the school would receive if it were a local charter school. The state is withholding nearly $850,000 - almost $4,000 per pupil. That's about $1,400 more per student than the school would receive if it had been approved locally, according to the complaint.

The $850,000 being allocated to Ivy Prep is one-one thousandth of the more than $650 million Gwinnett receives from the state for the education of its students, Georgia Charter Schools Association Chief Executive Officer Tony Roberts said.

"That payment represents a speck in the district's budget," Roberts said. "It makes us question whether their priority is the education of all children in their district or maintaining their control regardless of their children's needs and the preferences of their parents."

The legal battle "really crystallizes the whole issue of what local control means," said Todd Ziebarth, National Alliance for Public Charter Schools vice president for policy.

While school districts say local control is found in an elected school board, charter school advocates argue that local control lies with parents, teachers and school principals, Ziebarth said.

School districts in two states, Florida and Colorado, have challenged the authority of statewide charter school authorizing agencies, he said. In Florida, the law creating the agency was found unconstitutional, and the law was rescinded. But in Colorado, the constitutionality of the law passed muster.

In Georgia, the Bulloch County school district plans to file a similar suit in coming weeks over funding for Statesboro's Charter Conservatory for Liberal Arts & Technology, Superintendent Lewis Holloway said. The small south Georgia district is being forced to give about $400,000 year to the school, a huge dent in the district's budget.

"I don't think we can quietly say that's OK," Holloway said.

The charter school law passed last year is part of a series of state laws over the last decade that have made Georgia one of the most open states for the schools, which receive taxpayer money but operate independently and set their own goals for meeting federal No Child Left Behind standards. The schools usually are run by groups of parents, business leaders or community members.

Charter school experts say Georgia is just one of nine states with such independent commissions.

Minnesota passed the first charter school law in 1991, and now 39 states and Washington, D.C., allow the schools to be opened. Nationally, there are more than 1.5 million students in nearly 5,000 public charter schools.