Burning Atlanta’s charters
This is why it was important for Georgia voters to create an independent authorizer for charter schools.
This week, Atlanta Public Schools superintendent Erroll Davis asked the district’s Board of Education to stop approving new charter schools. The reason: Georgia’s Supreme Court has yet to decide whether Davis can withhold millions of dollars in tax revenues from charters to help pay off an old pension debt in the district. Until that judgment comes, Davis said he couldn’t “in good conscience” further burden the school system “in order to create new schools that will not pay their share.”
It must be noted that no charter ever approved by the school district is even partly responsible for this pension debt, which has grown to $550 million. And no charter employee benefits from this pension plan today. Rather, as district leaders have argued in court, charters should share this burden “because it keeps the Atlanta Public Schools fiscally sound.”
Those were the words of Charles Burbridge, the school district’s chief financial officer, who also testified in open court that he couldn’t recommend expanding charter schools in Atlanta “because every expansion of the charter school [sic] would be fewer dollars going to the traditional school district simply because of how we allocate pension.”
Fortunately, Atlanta’s Board of Education rejected such an argument this week and approved a new charter, the Atlanta Classical Academy, which had been in a holding pattern throughout this fight. But the fight isn’t over, and the events that led to the board’s vote this week cast doubt on whether traditional school districts should ever maintain the exclusive right to approve charters.
The trouble started a year ago, when the district decided to withhold nearly $3 million in tax revenue from eleven start-up charter schools to help pay off an unfunded pension obligation that dates to the Carter administration (that is, when Jimmy Carter was Georgia’s governor). One school, Tech High, ultimately closed its doors, saying it couldn’t absorb the $360,000 it lost. Ten other charters, including three metro-Atlanta KIPP schools, sued the district to recoup the money.
They argued that the district’s pension debt started mounting decades ago, long before the state allowed independent startup charter schools in 1998. The district has conceded that charters get no direct benefit from this particular pension plan (charter teachers participate in a separate statewide retirement system), but its own argument comes down to this: if charter schools want to consider themselves “public,” then they should share the crushing burdens of the school system.
In making this case, Fulton County judge Wendy Shoob all but laughed the school district out of court. Georgia law lets charter school authorizers withhold up to 3 percent of state and local charter school funding for administrative costs, but Shoob told the school system that the law doesn’t allow it to withhold charter revenues to fix its own financial problems. It’ll have to go to the legislature to find deliverance.
But though Shoob ruled for the charter schools, the district appealed to the state’s high court. And since that time, Davis and district leaders have been working to freeze charter expansion.
This time, they succeeded only in showing how hostile they are toward charter schools, and the good news for prospective charters is that voters last fall approved the creation of a chartering board that is independent of school districts. That’s little comfort to Atlanta’s existing charters, however, which must continue to spend time, money, and energy fighting this court case.
If there ever was an argument to be made for an independent charter authorizer, free from district animus and conflict, this is it.