Charter school officials led the fight to pass a constitutional amendment in Georgia that would re-establish a state commission to consider charter school applications.
After a bitter struggle, they won that fight in November when voters strongly backed the amendment.
Now, however, some charter school officials are unhappy with the commission, which has offered some schools charters of shorter duration than they had operated under before.
Some charter officials are also unhappy about the commission’s plans to exercise its authority to withhold a percentage of school revenue for administrative purposes. The state Board of Education, which considered charter applications that were rejected by local school boards, had the same authority but did not exercise it.
“I think that I’m surprised more than disappointed,” said Nina Gilbert, executive director of Ivy Preparatory Academy, which runs a pair of schools in DeKalb County and another in Gwinnett.
Gilbert stressed that she has no regrets about fighting for the re-establishment of a charter schools commission.
“My only concern is about the process,” she said.
Bonnie Holliday, executive director of the commission, said the length of a school’s charter was tied to its academic performance.
“While these decisions are not always easy and are often unpopular, they are necessary to ensure that commission charter schools offer better opportunities to Georgia students than they would otherwise receive,” she said. “Additionally, the State Charter Schools Commission is an independent authorizer. Just because a school was granted a certain term by a previous authorizer does not entitle that school to the same term with the commission.”
Charter schools are public schools that are granted flexibility in exchange for pursuing specific education goals. Charters approved by local school boards receive state and local funding. Last year, legislators set up a supplemental funding stream for charter schools that don’t get local funding because they were approved by the state and not a local board.
A new law now requires that charter schools hold a charter from the re-established commission if they are to get supplemental funding.
In January — before the commission was re-established — Ivy Prep received five-year charters for each of its schools from the state Board of Education. But charter officials at Ivy Prep and other schools were told that their school must get a charter from the commission if it wanted supplemental funding.
Ivy Prep’s Gwinnett school and its girls school in DeKalb both received five-year charters from the commission. Its boys’ school in DeKalb, however, was given a three-year charter.
Gilbert said she was told the boys’ school, now in its second academic year, was denied a longer charter because its students underperformed on the math portion of the Criterion-Referenced Competency Test. She said many of the school’s students were several notches below grade level when they enrolled and that it will take time to get them up to speed.
She said state board members understood the challenges of teaching below-grade-level students. “At the commission level, they took a very one-dimensional approach,” Gilbert said.
In addition to the shorter charter for its DeKalb boys’ school, Gilbert said she was also concerned about the 2 percent administrative fee the commission will charge.
The commission was entitled to take a combined $203,000 from Ivy Prep’s three schools, an amount equal to 3 percent of their revenue. But commission members voted Wednesday to reduce its cut to 2 percent, which would be about $135,000.
Holliday said the money will be used to pay for five full-time staff members and commission research on charter school best practices, virtual learning, innovative instruction and training.
Tony Roberts, president and chief executive officer of the Georgia Charter Schools Association, said he understands and sympathizes with the unhappiness of some charter school officials. But he saw a silver lining in the stands taken by the commission, which had been resisted, in part, out of fear that it would heedlessly do the bidding of any charter applicant.
“That should negate the feeling that the commission will approve anything before them,” Roberts said.