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Georgia High Court Strikes Down Charter Schools Law

Georgia's highest court on Monday struck down a state law that created a commission with the authority to approve charter schools over the objections of local school districts.

The 4-3 ruling by the Georgia Supreme Court does not affect some 65,000 students attending charter schools approved by local districts, but it created uncertainty for the 5,000 students in 16 such schools approved by the Georgia Charter Schools Commission.

The majority on the state high court said the 2008 law creating the commission conflicted with a provision of the state constitution that grants local boards of education exclusive control over general K-12 education. A constitutional provision allowing the state to operate "special schools," such as vocational schools, schools for exceptional children, and adult education schools, does not authorize the state to control charter schools, the court said.

"Labeling a commission charter school as 'special' does not make it so when the students who attend locally-controlled schools are no less special than those enrolled in commission charter schools and the subjects taught at commission charter schools are no more special than the subjects that may be available at locally-controlled schools," Chief Justice Carol W. Hunstein said in Gwinnett County School District v. Cox.

In a lengthy dissent, Justice David E. Nahmias said that under a "true historical context," commission charter schools are merely the latest version of "special schools" created by the legislature outside of the context of common schools run by local school boards.

"Today four judges have wiped away a small but important effort to improve public education in Georgia—an effort that reflects not only the education policy of this state's elected representatives but also the national education policy of the Obama administration," Nahmias said.

He noted that the Race to the Top program, begun under President Barack Obama, rewarded states that had laws allowing high-quality charter schools to be authorized by more than one entity, and that Georgia had amended its Race to the Top application to highlight the role of the state charter schools commission before winning $400 million in federal aid under the program.

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