School districts shouldn’t be the only charter authorizer in town

The conclusion seems so obvious: In a unanimous decision this week, Georgia’s Supreme Court said that the Atlanta school system cannot withhold funds from the charter schools it authorizes to help pay down an old pension debt that’s been building for decades.

But despite the good news for Atlanta’s charter schools, the fact remains that a major school district has shown how hostile it can be toward the charters it sponsors. Last year, Atlanta schools Superintendent Erroll Davis took $3 million from the revenues of eleven city charter schools so that charters could share the burden of an aging pension obligation that has grown to $550 million.

When lower courts told him he couldn’t do that (no charter employee benefits from this pension plan) Davis took his case to the state’s highest court and told his school board that it shouldn’t approve any more charters unless the Supreme Court gave him permission to seize the money.

Should we be surprised? Probably not. Charters have taken an increasing share of the public school market in Atlanta (charter enrollment grew 29 percent between 2011 and 2012, according to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools), whereas school-district enrollment has been essentially flat at around 49,000 students during that time. Davis failed to convince the Supreme Court of his argument, but his fight tells us that districts that authorize charter schools sometimes have incentives to acquire revenues bound for charter schools or turn charters away altogether.

So what does that tell us?

First, and most obvious, it tells us that districts should not be the only authorizer in town. More states are empowering independent chartering boards (ICBs), but 53 percent of charters nationwide are still sponsored by school districts, according to the National Association of Charter School Authorizers.

The existence of ICBs and other authorizers, however, doesn’t guarantee checks and balances. Georgia voters last year empowered the Georgia Charter Schools Commission to sponsor charters statewide, but Commission-authorized charter schools get less money per pupil than most district-authorized charter schools—especially those in Atlanta. So charter applicants that want to be funded at an appropriate level have a financial incentive to turn to Erroll Davis and the school district.

So Atlanta has given us a cautionary tale: Charter applicants need to be able to turn to another, publicly accountable authorizer if a school district or other sponsor treats them unfairly or with hostility, and said alternative authorizer must enjoy the same rights and funding that school districts receive. Sounds like common sense, but as with so much in charter policy, it’s a struggle (oftentimes legal) to act with a level head.

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