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State House passes charter school legislation

ATLANTA (AP) — State officials would regain the power to create charter schools even in communities where local school boards don't want them, under a constitutional amendment that won support Wednesday from the Georgia House but faces a challenge from Democrats in the Senate.

The measure passed 123-48 Wednesday, barely garnering the required two-thirds majority. House Speaker Pro Tem Jan Jones, the bill's lead sponsor, said she hopes the Senate will get the yes-votes needed to put the measure on the ballot for voters to consider in November.

"We spoke with a consensus voice that we need to do something for Georgia students in public education," Jones said after the vote.

Jones has said the constitutional amendment would clarify state law after a May ruling from the state Supreme Court outlawed the Georgia Charter Schools Commission. The court ruled the commission was illegally creating charter schools over the objection of districts.

The constitutional amendment had some support from Democrats, but the caucus was split on how to vote on the legislation.

Opponents say the state should not create charter schools when public school districts are facing $1 billion in state cuts and steep declines in local property tax revenues. Jones has promised the state-created schools would not siphon money from cash-strapped school districts, but she has not said where the state plans to get the money.

"Something is going to get cut. That pie is not all of a sudden going to grow. So where is that money going to come from?" said Rep. David Wilkerson, a Democrat from Austell.

Charter schools receive public funding but are freed from regulations like class size and teacher pay schedules in exchange for promises of improved student performance.

A House vote on the bill earlier this month fell 10 votes shy of the required two-thirds majority to approve it. Jones and other supporters spent the last two weeks tweaking the bill and working to win enough support to get it passed.

Senate Majority Leader Chip Rogers said he's hopeful that the constitutional amendment will pass his chamber, even though the Democratic caucus is opposing it.

"I'm hopeful the Democrats in the Senate will do the right thing," said the Republican from Woodstock.

It's unclear whether Republicans have full caucus buy-in on the amendment, but the proposal is currently short the two-thirds majority it would need to clear the chamber before heading to voters.

"I think it'll be just as tough in here as it was over there," said Sen. Butch Miller, R-Gainesville, declining to comment on his position on the issue. "It's a very divisive topic, one that people are passionate about on both sides. People are concerned about economic support of schools of all nature."

Democratic Whip Vincent Fort said the proposal would stifle local control.

"The central question is, who should have the authority to determine whether a system will create schools and allocate its funds?" Fort said. "They've changed some of the language in the bill, but that's really just window dressing. At its core, it's still fundamentally a power grab by the state."

The Georgia Charter Schools Commission was created in 2008 by frustrated lawmakers who said local school boards were turning down charter school applications because they didn't like the competition. The commission began approving and funding charter schools over the objection of the local boards, sparking the lawsuit that eventually ended in the Supreme Court ruling.

Nina Gilbert, who is fighting to keep her Ivy Preparatory Academy charter school in Gwinnett County open, said the House's vote gives her hope. The all-girls school is petitioning the state Board of Education to stay open after the local school district voted not to renew the school's charter.

"We are thrilled," said Gilbert. "It means we are a step closer to where we would like to be in terms of having long-term stability."

Statewide groups representing school boards, school superintendents and teachers oppose the constitutional change.

"We are disappointed that just over two-thirds of locally elected state representatives agreed to put the longstanding concept of local control over local education funds up to a statewide vote," said Tim Callahan, spokesman for the Professional Association of Georgia Educators. "You'd almost think state representatives weren't running for local election themselves this November."


Associated Press writer Errin Haines contributed to this report.