Lawsuit sets its sights on a school with class

"Ms. Gilbert, I made an 'A' in science," chirps an excited young girl in the hallway at Gwinnett County's Ivy Preparatory Academy. Ivy Prep's head, Nina Gilbert, rewards the sixth-grader at the girls-only charter middle school with a high-five.

Established in 2008 in an office building in Norcross with bright, cheerful classrooms, Ivy Prep now has sixth and seventh grades, with plans to grow by a grade every year. The school is coping admirably with 300 high-achieving students who travel from as far away as Paulding, Cobb, Rockdale and Fayette counties to benefit from the college prep-focused, science-oriented environment.

How focused on college prep? Each classroom is named after a college, from Spelman to Harvard. Seventh-graders' lessons include practice completing college application forms. Yet the outstanding education opportunity for these dedicated young girls is at risk. Ivy Prep is the stone in the sling that David has aimed at Goliath. It's caught between a county board of education intent on destroying a school it never wanted and the state commission that approved the school unanimously.

In the bustling halls of Ivy Preparatory Academy, a charter middle school in Gwinnett County, students are as concerned as staff about their future after Gwinnett sued the state over the school's funding.

A lawsuit by Gwinnett, the state's largest school district with 160,000 students, challenges the constitutionality of the Georgia Charter Schools Commission, created by legislators as an alternative approach to charter school approval. Gwinnett, which has an education budget of $2.2 billion, is sulking over the $849,944 that goes to the school's 216 Gwinnett students, a scant 0.13 percent of the total student population. The lawsuit complains the commission is "illegally" withholding $3,934 per student.

Charter schools are public schools that are allowed greater flexibility and innovation - including less central office control - in exchange for greater accountability. Charter schools may not cherry-pick students and must accept all students on a first-come, first-served basis. With no transportation provided by the school system, attendance speaks to a family's level of commitment in choosing that form and quality of public education.

Charter schools undergo a daunting and rigorous application process, usually with little help from the staid bureaucracy from which they're seeking relief and approval. The Ivy Prep organizers' 2007 petition was rejected by Gwinnett County Public Schools, which cited, among other reasons: The proposed facility had no sidewalks; the budget (based on county figures) was too high; the charter school didn't have enough insurance policies (the system requires 17); the school day was too long, therefore not traditional enough; the school didn't budget enough for transportation; and, by not admitting boys, the school was in violation of Title IX requirements (despite testimony by the Title IX author that it was not in violation).

The state approved the charter school and it opened operating only on state funding of about $3,000 per student. In 2008, Ivy Prep embraced a new law, HB881, presented its petition to the newly established Georgia Charter Schools Commission and was approved as a commission charter school. This law reallocated state funds so that students at Ivy Prep received funding similar to the funding they would have received in their home district. The money follows the child - as it should.

About 70 percent of Ivy Prep's students are from Gwinnett. There is ethnic, racial and economic diversity: 10 percent are Caucasian; about one third qualify for free and reduced lunch. There is no typical student, according to Gilbert. "The only thing they have in common is they're girls. They range from the immigrant who didn't want to get pregnant - which she said was common for girls in her community - to the girl who wanted to go to college and liked our college prep focus."

As with charter schools around the state, Ivy Prep must operate on less per-student funding than other public school students. Plus they receive no reimbursement for the hefty monthly lease for the facility.

Yet Ivy Prep exceeded both Gwinnett and state academic performance averages, a commendable achievement considering black and Hispanic students made up nearly three out of four of the 8,573 Gwinnett students who failed to meet Criterion-Referenced Competency Test (CRCT) levels during the 2008-09 school year.

Gwinnett taxpayers must question the motives and morality of this lawsuit. In the midst of a statewide budget crunch, with educators dealing with furloughs and shorter school days, Gwinnett is squandering taxpayer funds to take down an outstanding public school that is doing far more with dramatically less than the average public school.

"We are not unaccustomed to the struggle of opening and running a charter school," Gilbert remarks wryly, "but this new twist ..." A tiny middle school excelling through innovation and flexibility has become a fly in the ointment to a rigid education monopoly which sees its power base eroding. And that's just wrong.

Benita M. Dodd is vice president of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation, an independent think tank that proposes practical, market-oriented approaches to public policy to improve the lives of Georgians. Her views do not necessarily reflect those of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation.