Charter schools get boost

ATLANTA -- A judge ruled Friday that the Georgia Charter Schools Commission is constitutional, issuing a blow to seven public school districts posing the first ever legal challenge to the state's charter school law.

Fulton County Superior Court Judge Wendy Shoob ruled from the bench against the districts, which argued that the commission is creating an independent school system prohibited by the state constitution. Shoob said state law allows for the creation of ''special schools,'' a definition that fits the charter schools approved by the state commission.

''The General Assembly has provided sufficient guidelines,'' Shoob said in her ruling issued after she heard more than three hours of arguments from attorneys.

Attorneys for the school districts said they likely will file an appeal of the ruling.

''She's just wrong,'' said Mike Bowers, a former state attorney general who is representing Gwinnett County schools in the case.

Gwinnett, the state's largest school district, filed the lawsuit in September, and six other districts have signed on since. The other districts are: Atlanta, DeKalb County, Bulloch County, Candler County, Henry County and Griffin-Spalding County.

The districts were upset that the commission approved charter petitions they had turned down and then moved state funding from the school district to the charter schools' coffers. For districts like Gwinnett, that meant losing $850,000 in a year when state funding for education was slashed by hundreds of millions.

"While we are disappointed in the initial ruling, we realized this case could be one that involved several steps," Gwinnett Schools Superintendent J. Alvin Wilbanks said. "We still have legitimate concerns regarding the constitutionality of the Georgia Charter Schools Commission. The Board of Education and I will meet with our attorneys to discuss what action should be taken moving forward."

But charter school supporters say the ruling means the schools will get the funding they deserve and desperately need.

Tony Roberts, CEO of the Georgia Charter Schools Association, celebrated with supporters after the judge's ruling.

''The school districts have proven they dislike the commission, but that does not make it illegal,'' Roberts said, wiping away tears. ''The children in Georgia deserve the best education possible.''

Charter schools are funded by taxpayer dollars but are given flexibility to determine how they will meet federal education benchmarks. They are often run by groups of parents, community members, educators or business owners.

The law creating the Charter Schools Commission passed in 2008, part of a series of state laws over the last decade that have made Georgia one of the most open states for the schools.

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