Charter school bill set for Senate debate today

By SARAH FAY CAMPBELL
sarah@newnan.com
The bill that recreates the Georgia Charter Schools Commission is on the calendar for debate on the Senate floor today.
Three days remain in the 2012 session of the Georgia General Assembly — today, Tuesday and Thursday.
House Bill 797 is the "enabling legislation" for the proposed constitutional amendment that clarifies and expands the state's authority over education.
It lays out how the Georgia Charter Schools Commission will approve charter schools, and how the schools will be funded.
HB 797 will only become law if Georgians approve the constitutional amendment in November.
The bill was approved by the House on March 7. It was voted out of the Senate Education and Youth Committee on March 21.
HB 797 has undergone many changes since it was first introduced. THe House Education Committee changed it completely; the Senate committee made extensive changes as well.
If the bill is approved by the Senate, it will go back to the House. The House can vote to approve it as is, or make additional changes. The bill can go back and forth between the two chambers until an agreement is reached. If neither side is willing to accept the changes made by the other chamber, a conference committee will be appointed to work out the differences. Then each chamber will vote on the "conference committee report."
Often, conference committee reports on controversial bills come down to the wire, being voted on in the last hours — or even minutes, of the session. By state law, the last day of the session, known as "sine die," must end at midnight.
State Senator Mike Crane, R-Newnan, serves on the education committee.
Under both the constitutional amendment and HB 797, "this isn't designed to be a battle," Crane said.
"I think the emphasis will always be to have the local school board on board with any charter schools in their area," he said. "But occasionally, there may be a need for the state to step in."
Crane said he thinks the state will only have to step in "very occasionally. I don't think there is going to be a rash of charter schools just popping up everywhere," he said. "I think the state will be very judicious in when it decides to grant a charter against the wishes of a local school board."
HB 797 is very clear in that local school districts won't miss out on funding because a charter school operates in their area.
Funding for the state charter schools would include the QBE (Quality Basic Education) formula earnings and QBE grants "based on the school's enrollment, school profile and student characteristics," as well as "a proportional share of earned categorical grants, non-QBE state grants, transportation grants, school nutrition grants and all other state grants, except state equalization grants."
State charter schools would get additional funding equivalent to "total revenues less federal revenues less state revenues other than equalization grants per full-time equivalent for the lowest five school systems ranked by assessed valuation per weighted full-time equivalent count, as determined by the department" as well as "the state-wide average total capital revenue per full-time equivalent, as determined" by the department of education.
The Georgia Charter Schools Commission was originally created in 2008. It was struck down as unconstitutional in 2011. The major sticking point was funding. Under the old law, the state could withhold a portion of state funds that a local school system was entitled to, to make up for the local tax funding that was not "following" charter school students.
Because of the ruling by the Georgia Supreme Court, a constitutional amendment is needed to reinstate the commission.
The constitutional amendment, House Resolution 1162, was approved by the Senate on March 19.
For a time, it had looked like the resolution might not pass. A constitutional amendment requires a 2/3 "super majority" of the House and Senate to be put on the ballot — which meant a few Democrats had to be on board.
The resolution was tabled while Senate leadership worked to convince enough Democrats to vote for it.
In the end, the resolution passed with two votes to spare.
Crane said one of the most memorable parts of the debate was when Democratic Sen. George Hooks of Americus, who is the longest-serving member of the Georgia Senate, showed a copy of his local paper. The newspaper story was about the serious problems with the local school board.
"It was basically just really hitting hard against their local school board, which seems to be in total dysfunction — and how they need some intervention somewhere," Crane said.
Without the constitutional amendment, "I think the argument could be made that, long term, the state might lose any authority when it comes to schooling in Georgia."
"If we can't introduce more choices to students around the state, then we are going to be stuck with a system that fails too many of our kids," Crane said. "Having additional choices is going to help. I know it is going to help move us in the right direction," he said.
Crane said he doesn't think the new laws will have a big impact in Coweta and the other areas he represents — because the school boards function well.
One concern many people have with the new charter schools plan is that funding for traditional schools will end up being reduced in the appropriations process.
"I really don't think we're going to see that," Crane said.
As the bill is currently written, the State Charter Schools Commission would have seven members, appointed by the state board of education.
Those members would be selected from nominations made by the governor, the president of the Senate (the lieutenant governor) and the Speaker of the House. The governor gets three nominations; the speaker and Senate president get two. The state officials must recommend at least two people for each seat. The commission members would serve two year terms, though three members would serve one-year terms to begin with, so that the terms could be staggered.
The commission can "determine the manner in which it reviews state charter school petitions" and can use existing Department of Education personnel to conduct reviews.
Commission members will not be paid, but can get per diem and travel expenses.
The state board of education can overrule actions of the commission, within 60 days of the actions.
The commission is required to "provide maximum access to information regarding state charter schools to all parents in this state." That information must include a "user-friendly Internet website that will provide information and data necessary for parents to make informed decisions."
Duties of the commission include ensuring "that all charters for state charter schools are consistent with state education goals," as well as developing and promoting best practices for charter schools "to ensure that high-quality schools are developed and encouraged" and to "develop, promote and require high standards of accountability for state charter schools."
The commission also has to monitor and annually review the "academic and financial performance" of the charter schools and "hold the schools accountable for their performance pursuant to the charter and to the provisions of this article."
The commission is also required to review the citizenship and immigration status of each school employee.
And the commission has the duty to actively seek, with the assistance of the state department of education, supplemental revenue from federal grant funds, institutional grant funds, and philanthropic organizations.
To qualify as a candidate for a state charter, a school with a "defined attendance zone" must demonstrate that it has "special characteristics, such as a special population, a special curriculum, or some other feature or features which enhance educational opportunities."
A charter applicant must submit its charter application to the local board of education at the same time it submits it to the state commission.
The state commission cannot take action on a charter petition until it is denied by the local school board. The local school board has 60 days to make a decision.
The school board can submit, in writing, the reasons it denied the petition to the commission.
Each charter school must have a governing board. The members of the board must be U.S. citizens and residents of Georgia, and cannot be an employee of the school. Governing board members must attend annual training conducted by the commission.


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