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Friday, May 27, 2011 - 5:40am

Local Control at Heart of Charter Debate

Lawyers for a group of charter schools ruled unconstitutional by the State Supreme Court asked the court this afternoon to reconsider the decision. They’re arguing that the decision will force the courts to play too large a role in setting education policy.

The legal fight highlights a question being asked about charter schools in the south and across the country: Who should decide where a school can open, and why?

It’s the last day of the school year at the Odyssey School in Newnan, Georgia, and fifth graders are participating in a school tradition.

It’s called the Tiger Walk, and it’s modeled after a football tradition at Auburn University.

Odyssey’s director, Andy Geeter, calls the name of each of the school’s fifth graders. The students run down the hallway, high-fiving their teachers, parents and classmates. When they finish the run, they’re Odyssey’s newest group of middle schoolers.

But this year, Odyssey’s fifth graders aren’t quite sure which middle school they’re running to. Last week, the Georgia Supreme Court struck down the state Charter School Commission, which is the agency that oversees Odyssey. That means that Odyssey and 16 other schools approved by the state are in limbo, unsure of whether they can legally open this fall.

Geeter explains that many of his students would be homeschooled if they weren’t at Odyssey. He argues that the value of a school like Odyssey is that it gives students who maybe wouldn’t thrive in a traditional school structure a place where they won’t get lost.

“There’s a flexibility about how we approach the child and their education that you don’t necessarily find at a traditional public school,” Geeter says. “And again, traditional public schools work great for a lot of kids. There are some kids it doesn’t work that well for. And a choice is important.”

But the seven local school districts that sued to stop the charter say the state shouldn’t decide how varied a district’s educational options should be.

“It comes down, I think, to a question of how we view schools,” says Angela Palm, the legislative director of the Georgia School Boards Association. Palm argues that school districts are best suited to make decisions about what is best for the community.

“And when we add schools to the mix – when a local board is approving it they can look at it as a whole,” she says. “And they can look at petitions and say, does this add something to what we already offer, and is it beneficial to the district? And when someone from the outside is doing it, they don’t have those same considerations.”

Many districts worry, for example, that charters will drain resources from traditional schools or draw students away from already under-enrolled buildings – concerns they say the state doesn’t consider. But supporters of state-sponsored charters argue that some of the reasons local school boards resist opening charter schools have nothing to do with their educational value.

And it’s not just an issue in Georgia. Peter Groff, the head of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, argues that local control itself is an idea that’s showing its age.

“All states kind of look at education as kind of a local control issue, but that argument has begun to be turned on its head, as we look at different ways of trying to figure out how to prepare kids for the 21st century and for the global economy,” he says. “I think now looking past local control, looking past the agrarian calendar that we continue to use, those are the type of things that we are now setting aside.”

Observers say that because state’s constitutions and charter laws vary so widely, that it’s unlikely the Georgia case would serve as a precedent anywhere else. But supporters and opponents of charter schools are closely watching what happens in Georgia. Members of the state legislature’s Republican majority have vowed to amend the state’s constitution to restore the state’s power to open schools. If an amendment passes, it will go before a state referendum, which will be an unprecedented test of public support of charters.

That process will take months, and in the meantime, schools like Odyssey are trying to figure out how to stay open next school year. Geeter says he’s reasonably sure that the school and state will find a solution. At the end of the Tiger Walk, he projects confidence to his students and teachers.

“We look forward to seeing everyone in August,” he tells the students. “The school year is done!”

And many parents, like Holly Booth, say they’re not making alternate arrangements just yet.

“We need to back Odyssey,” she says. “If we all start getting cold feet, well then, and start finding something else, that’s no good either. I’m going to tough it out until they kick us out.”

Director Geeter will spend the summer restarting his application to be a state special school, a designation that is still legal but gives the school much less funding. Other state-approved charters are quickly applying to their local school boards for approval as well.