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Wednesday, December 1, 2010 - 10:12am

Charter Schools in Legal Limbo

The Museum School in metro-Atlanta isn’t your typical public school. Here, kids wear uniforms and their curriculum is tailor-made. It’s a small charter school. Only 136 kids from kindergarten to third grade attend, and a lot of their learning happens outside the classroom. Every other week they go on an expedition to get a hands-on learning experience.

Today, it’s the Atlanta zoo. Donning clipboards and journals the kids are roaming around the exhibits. Brian Deutch is a parent chaperone with two sons at the school.

“The experience we’re getting here is tremendously different,” says Deutch. “He’s more engaged, and he’s getting more of these expeditions than he would in traditional public school.”

Deutch joined with other parents to create the Museum School. They didn’t like their public school because it wasn’t performing well enough, he says, it focused too much on standardized test preparation, and he couldn’t help change it.

“We ran into administration that was unresponsive to our offers to help and very unresponsive to the ideas coming from our parents and community,” says Deutch.

Now the parents control most of what goes on at this school---all the way down to the locally catered lunch their kids eat in the cafeteria.  But the fate of the Museum School is in limbo.  That’s because the Dekalb County school board didn’t want the school to get a charter saying it was too exclusive and too experimental.  But parents appealed to the state’s Charter School Commission which granted the charter last year.  And now Dekalb County Schools is one of seven districts suing the state because they’re losing money to them.

“This year, it is costing local districts ten million dollars but that amount will be growing and growing exponentially if it is not struck down,” says the Dekalb County Schools’ lawyer Tom Cox.

Cox argues the Georgia constitution doesn’t allow the state to create charter schools.  But charter school supporters say they need more choices in public education and if the 180 local boards in Georgia don't let them create one, they’ll go to the Georgia Charter School Commission.

“What they’re doing now is saying the people can’t decide to create charter schools,” says Bruce Brown who represents the charter schools in the lawsuit. “They’re saying the law is what it is and the people should not have been able to pass that law.  They want total control and that’s not the law.”

Local school boards do have total control over how to spend local tax dollars.  If they don’t want a charter school, they don’t fund it. But the state’s charter school commission is forcing them to. It withholds the same amount in state dollars from the local district schools and gives it to the charter school.  Brown says there’s nothing wrong with that.

“Parents are paying state taxes and local taxes and if they make the decision to send their child to a commission charter school that school should be funded in the exact same way with the same amount of money if that parent decides to send their child to the local district school,” says Brown.

But it’s not that simple says the Dekalb County schools’ lawyer Cox. “The actual cost of a school system in serving its students doesn’t magically decrease by some average per student amount when a student or a small amount of students leave the system. Buildings still have to be heated. The buses have to be run; the teachers have to be paid.”

Cox says the commission is creating another financial burden on systems already struggling with state budget cuts.

Also at stake in the lawsuit is the future of 2,400 students in the same position as those at the Museum School. It may have to close if the Georgia Supreme Court doesn’t uphold the law.  Parent Lee Callaway.

There’s been a lot of blood, money, tears, all kinds of stuff that’s been put in this school,” says parent Lee Callaway. “It would be very disappointing if they pulled this charter.”

The court’s decision will also affect 20 other charter schools now under consideration by the state commission.

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