Ga. court won't reconsider charter school ruling

Photo by Michael Buckelew

Photo by Michael Buckelew

LAWRENCEVILLE -- The Georgia Supreme Court won't reconsider a landmark ruling that struck down a law that cleared the way for a wave of new state-approved charter schools.

In a 4-3 vote, the court rejected a request by Attorney General Sam Olens and a handful of charter schools who claimed the decision could throw Georgia's educational system into chaos. The May ruling overturned a law that allowed the state's Charter Schools Commission to approve and fund charter schools over the objection of local school boards.

The court ruled the commission unconstitutional, making the 16 schools approved by the panel in the past three years illegal, including Ivy Preparatory Academy in Norcross. It said that local school boards have sole control over public K-12 education and that the state Board of Education can create schools only in rare instances.

Monday's denial is the final legal step for the schools affected by the ruling -- they cannot appeal the case any further.

''I am extremely disappointed with the Supreme Court's ruling,'' Olens said in a statement. ''However, the ruling is final, and the rule of law requires that such rulings be followed whether or not one agrees with them.''

Motions for reconsideration are rarely granted, and even charter school advocates called the move a ''Hail Mary.''

The three dissenting judges were Justices David Nahmias, George Carley and Harold Melton. In a substitute dissent issued Monday, Nahmias wrote that the majority's ruling was ''truly stunning.'' He said if local boards of education truly have exclusive control over K-12 public education, then state laws and regulations establishing education policy ''are of dubious constitutionality.''

''Some local school systems, and champions of local control over public education, might like the freedom that comes with this part of the equation, but it haphazardly undermines the scheme of public education that has existed in Georgia for generations,'' he wrote.

Since the court's ruling last month, the 16 commission schools have been scrambling to find ways to stay open. About 16,000 students could be affected.

The decision does not affect the 65,000 students attending charter schools approved by local school districts, including New Life Academy of Excellence and Gwinnett School of Mathematics, Science and Technology in Gwinnett County.

The schools have two options: gain approval from their local school boards or have their charters accepted by the state Board of Education. The state board approved two of the schools last week -- Odyssey School and Georgia Cyber Academy -- and merged them into one.

Schools that get approval from the state rather than their local boards no longer qualify for local tax dollars, which can be up to 40 percent of a school's funding.

Meanwhile, lawmakers are considering an amendment to the state's constitution that would address the court's ruling. But that wouldn't take effect for at least a year, which wouldn't help the commission schools trying to stay open.

Representatives from Ivy Prep -- the state's first all-girls school -- have been working with Gwinnett County Public Schools officials to discuss options for keeping the school open.

"We are very optimistic about the recent conversations that we've had with Gwinnett County officials, and we look forward to working with them to establish a mutually beneficial partnership," Ivy Prep founder Nina Gilbert wrote in an email earlier this month. "We have had three academically successful years, and a strong, seamless start to our fourth year is our No. 1 priority."

The Charter Schools Commission was created in 2008 by frustrated state lawmakers who said local school boards were rejecting charter petitions because they didn't like the competition. The commission began approving schools and then allotting both state and local tax dollars to the schools over outcries from districts.

A year later, the school districts sued the state.