Midnight in Georgia

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Pretty amazing week. Charter School Hall of Famer John King was named New York State education commissioner; New Schools Venture Fund’s Summit 2011 brought the "edurati" together for another exhilarating brainfest; liberal icon Howard Dean declared charters “the future”; the UFT and NYC’s NAACP chapter filed another lawsuit to block closure of failing schools and co-locations with charters; and the who-interrupted-whom saga of Diane Ravitch and Rhode Island Education Commission Deborah Gist took an intriguing turn when it became known that a filmmaker recorded their disputed meeting with Rhode Island Governor Lincoln Chafee (hint: Gist is fine with releasing the video). But the central event took place in the Georgia Supreme Court, where the abominable Gwinnett v. Cox decision abolished the Georgia Charter Schools Commission, the statewide authorizer created in the wake of district refusals to approve new charters. No wonder that two days later, hundreds of Georgia parents, and kids rallied against the ruling, which derailed (we hope temporarily) the schools the Commission had chartered.

The 4-3 decision turned on a semantic distinction finer than “what the meaning of ‘is’ is. The Court held that Georgia’s constitution forbids “special” schools unless they’re intended for specific slices of the student population not served by district schools. (Apparently the Court hasn’t heard of IDEA and the fact that districts are actually required to serve those “special” kids.) Nor did they provide more than a footnote about why state-chartered schools approved by the State Board of Education on appeal are OK, but not state-chartered schools approved by a State Commission. Neither have they read up on Georgia’s history of creating other state-approved schools, as the “superbly researched, reasoned and argued” dissent by Justice David Nahmias shows. Nahmias also points out that the state’s $400 million Race to the Top federal grant was awarded in part because the state could claim an alternative charter authorizer. Note to Arne Duncan….

This is a worse act of judicial usurpation than the 2008 Florida appeals court decision that struck down the Florida Schools of Excellence Commission, similarly created as a statewide authorizer. There, the language of the state constitution was clear, if perverse: “The school board shall operate, control and supervise all free public schools within the school district.” (Article IX(4)(b). That geographic specificity proved to be an insurmountable barrier to the arguments of charter lawyers. In the Georgia case, the court is taking language far less clear, and using it to reach an ideological – and perhaps partisan -- conclusion.

What both these decisions have in common is the musty odor of senescence. State constitutions that treat local districts as fiefdoms, funded through 19th-century tax schemes that treat land as the source of all wealth, surrounded by a legal moat keeping children in and everything from charter schools to online-learning out, need to be updated. Especially when decisions like this one shred a promise the state made to thousands of families whose aspirations were being thwarted by local school districts.

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