6 Districts Spar with Board over Charter Schools; MONEY School Districts Say Dollars Were Unfairly and Illegally Distributed to Charter Schools. LEGALITY Both Sides Argue over State Constitution in a Case That Will End with a Single Judge

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Byline: WALTER C. JONES

ATLANTA - Schools often produce hefty reading assignments, and a court battle between the State Board of Education and six local school systems is generating a mountain of homework for Judge Wendy L. Shoob.

She's the Fulton County Superior Court judge presiding over multiple lawsuits that will be tried as one. All revolve on the local districts' claim that the state board illegally disbursed money to charter schools in their counties.

The districts claim the money should have gone to them instead for use in traditional schools.

Last week, the Attorney General's Office that is representing the state board filed a brief answering the districts' claims and denying anything improper was done. On May 7, Shoob will preside over a hearing where all the lawyers for every side will argue their points.

In addition to the state's lawyers, there will be attorneys for each of the charter schools and each of the districts.

Because Shoob will have done her homework, she will know in advance what's likely to be said.

Charter schools are public schools that are exempt from certain local and state regulations. They are instead governed by the details of their individual charter, or contract.

The nation's first was the City Academy of St. Paul, Minn., in 1992. Six years later, Georgia enacted a law to allow them, and so far there are 122 with 65,000 students. Some were traditional schools that local administrators converted. But the controversy centers on ones started by parents or civic groups that wanted to use a different way of teaching.

When legislators heard complaints from parents that local school boards were denying community-sponsored applications for charter schools, they began setting up mechanisms to go around the local boards. The latest was a 2008 law that created the Charter Commission that can approve applications over the objections of a local board.

The suits were sparked by a decision in June in which the commission began using authority in the new law to order the diversion of state money that would have gone to the local district and sending it instead to the charter schools. The amount diverted is based on what the local system spends on the average student at a traditional school.

Charter advocates hailed the decision, saying it begins to even up the funding differences between the two types of public schools. Critics say it violates the constitution.

Several points are being challenged constitutionally.

The districts' lawyers are attacking on several fronts. They say the provision in the constitution that allows the state to establish "special schools" like those for the blind and deaf wasn't intended to include charter schools, which didn't exist when the constitution was last revised. It refers only to schools for students with special needs, they write. …