ATLANTA — A Georgia law that cleared the way for a wave of new state-approved charter schools was struck down Monday by the state's divided top court in a landmark decision that has left thousands of students and parents under a cloud of uncertainty.
The Georgia Supreme Court's 4-3 decision overturned the law creating the Georgia Charter Schools Commission, which allowed the state to approve and fund charter schools over the objection of local school boards. The decision promises to reshape how public schools are funded by concluding that only local boards of education have the power to open and pay for public schools.
"We do not in any manner denigrate the goals and aspirations that these efforts reflect. The goals are laudable," wrote Chief Justice Carol Hunstein. "The method used to attain those goals, however, is clearly and palpably unconstitutional."
The decision does not affect the 65,000 students attending charter schools approved by their local school district. But left unclear is the fate of 16 charter schools approved by the commission and three special schools created by the state.
All told, about 16,000 students are now enrolled in the schools, which are scattered across the state.
"We really don't know what happens next," said Tony Roberts, the chief executive of the Georgia Charter School Association.
A dissent written by Justice David Nahmias warned that the ruling could also abolish "any other 'special school' the General Assembly might dare to create." That means other schools set up by the state, such as those designed for military families, could be abolished, critics say.
"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 wrote.
State Superintendent John Barge said he will be working with the state Board of Education to "see what flexibility can be offered for these schools," and some of the schools are planning to ask local school boards to grant new petitions. But parents are already scrambling to figure out the next step.
"I feel like we've worked so hard, we don't want this to end. It's really frustrating to see we may lose this option," said Renee Lord, who has two children at the Georgia Cyber Academy, a school that was approved to enroll 8,500 students next academic year but is now threatened by the court's decision.
"This really is the one best option for so many families whose children were failing at traditional schools. This school provided an option for so many families across the state that don't have options."
Gwinnett County Schools Superintendent Alvin Wilbanks, whose district was among the group that challenged the legislation, said his system is not "anti-charter school" but instead got involved to defend how tax dollars are spent. The school system — the state's largest — is losing at least $800,000 each year for the all-girls charter school, the district said.
The lawsuit "was not a stand against the creation of charter schools, but rather against the establishment of a state commission that sought to usurp the jurisdiction and resources of a duly elected local board of education," Wilbanks said.
Since 1995, local school districts have created dozens of charter schools, which get public support but aren't subject to many regulations that apply to conventional public schools. Some school districts, though, have been skeptical of charter schools that could compete for dollars, attention and students.
The state commission was created in 2008 by frustrated lawmakers who said they were upset local school boards were rejecting charter petitions because they didn't like the competition. A year before, charter school supporters had submitted 26 petitions to local school districts — and all 26 were denied, Roberts said.
"This was the pattern, not the anomaly, of local school districts," he said.
The legislation sparked a revolt by school districts, which filed a lawsuit a year later claiming the commission violated state law by unfairly taking funding away from the districts and giving it to charter schools. They claimed the commission was actually taking local tax dollars without the approval of local taxpayers.
The charter schools' supporters countered by arguing the commission was designed to re-direct state — not local — funding to help keep the schools afloat.
The law's supporters won the first legal showdown in May 2010, when a Fulton County judge ruled the commission was constitutional and didn't break any laws. But Monday's ruling, joined by Justices Robert Benham, Hugh Thompson and Harris Hines, was a blow to charter school supporters.
It found that the Georgia Constitution grants only county and area education boards the explicit authority to create and maintain public schools. The law, it said, is designed to limit authority over public education to "that level of government closest and most responsive to the taxpayers and parents of the children being educated."
The challenge was filed by school district officials eager to rein in the commission's scope. The districts in the lawsuit are among the state's largest — Gwinnett County, DeKalb County and Atlanta Public Schools — along with four smaller districts: Bulloch, Henry, Candler and Griffin-Spalding schools. At least 37 other districts have signed on to support the challenge.
Critics of the decision said it was too broad and could have unintended consequences. Nahmias, who was joined by Justices George Carley and Harold Melton in the dissent, said judges should only strike down education rules in very rare instances.
The charter school commission's supporters quickly drew up plans for a new campaign.
In the short term, they are urging local school boards and the state board of education to grant the schools last-minute reprieves so they can open next school year. And they are holding a rally Tuesday at the state Capitol for a more far-sighted solution — a constitutional amendment that could trump Georgia's court ruling. Roberts said he already has supporters in the state Legislature lined up to sponsor the measure.
But for now, the schools said they will keep doing what they always do: Educating students. Nina Gilbert, the principal of Ivy Preparatory Academy, said she's telling students and their parents to "stand strong." After all, final exams are just around the corner.
"There are children that are still learning, teachers that are teaching. And that will not be stopped," she said. "But parents deserve a choice. And students deserve high-quality options."