Georgia became the center of the charter school universe recently as an estimated 4,000 people flocked to Atlanta for the National Charter Schools Conference.
One of the conference's featured speakers was one of the nation's most outspoken supporters of charter schools, those public schools that are given the flexibility by local boards of education to bypass regulations and experiment with new approaches to teaching children.
"This is not about ideology," former President Bill Clinton told the attendees. "It's not about theology. It's about what we can do to give our kids a better tomorrow by putting our country back in the future business. Charter schools showed we can put our schools in the future business."
As part of the conference, the organizers held a rally at the state Capitol to protest a recent decision by the Georgia Supreme Court.
The court ruled in May that the creation of a State Charter Schools Commission that authorized and funded charter schools over the objections of local school boards was a violation of the Georgia Constitution.
That ruling has outraged charter school advocates, but it was a reasoned decision to uphold a provision that's been part of the state constitution for more than 130 years: Local school boards retain control over the allocation of local tax money for public education.
If the justices had ruled the other way, they would have been acting like a bunch of liberal activist judges who were trying to legislate from the bench. Instead, they took a responsible route to keep intact a long-established principle of constitutional law.
"What is important about this opinion is that local control means local control," said former attorney general Mike Bowers, a conservative Republican who represented the winning side in the charter school lawsuit.
For those who disagree with the state constitution's wording on public school governance, there is a way to change that. They can ask their legislators to pass a constitutional amendment in next year's session. If the state's voters ratify the amendment, the constitution will be modified accordingly.
Charter school supporters have been acting like the Supreme Court ruling was a death blow to the whole concept of charter schools.
"If we lose here then we lose across the country," said Peter Groff, president of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.
That is a very misleading statement. The Supreme Court decision affects only the 16 charter schools that had been authorized by the state charter school commission. Georgia has 170 charter schools — with 65,000 students enrolled —that are unaffected by the ruling because they operate with local school board approval.
Even among the 16 charter schools affected by the ruling, it appears likely that some of them will be able to work out agreements that allow them to open their doors to students in August.
In other words, charter schools are not going anywhere. I am confident that the number of them operating in the state will continue to grow, which is a healthy development.
Charter schools are not a magic formula for curing our public school problems. A number of independent studies conducted over the past decade have shown that kids educated in charter schools don't perform much better, and in some cases do worse, than students who attend regular schools.
In 2009, a comprehensive study by Stanford University researchers found that fewer than one-fifth of charter schools nationally offered a better education than comparable local schools, while more than a third, 37 percent, were "significantly worse."
Although "charter schools have become a rallying cry for education reformers," the report from the Center for Research on Education Outcomes warned, "this study reveals in unmistakable terms that, in the aggregate, charter students are not faring as well" as students in traditional schools.
It is important, however, to keep experimenting with new methods and approaches to teaching the next generation, as charter schools do. That's because we're living in a time when some state legislators, for ideological reasons, want to dismantle the current system of public education and make large cutbacks in funding for public schools.
It is possible that some of the new ideas developed and refined in the charter schools can at least negate the legislature's unwillingness to fully fund public education. It's worth a try.
Tom Crawford is the editor of The Georgia Report, an Internet news service that covers government and politics in Georgia. His column appears Wednesdays and on gainesvilletimes.com.