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New state law would clarify future for north Georgia-based charter school
Mountain Education Charter High School 2022
File photo.

Officials with north Georgia-based Mountain Education Charter High School fear that a new state education law requiring local authorization of charter institutions could come directly at the cost of their students.

The regional institution is currently facing dissolvement at the end of June 2023 if new legislation is not passed, said MECHS Director of Community Outreach Roger Fitzpatrick. 

This story continues below.

State legislators are working on a bill to remedy the situation and intend to introduce it early next year, said Ga. House District 9 Rep. and education committee member Will Wade.

“Because there are schools that aren't clear on what that [local authorization] process looks like, Rep. Erwin and myself are working on legislation for Mountain Ed. to continue while working with the state Department of Education,” Wade said during a Dec. 21 interview.

Essentially, the legislation would allow for MECHS to continue, the state representative said.

“I think that Mountain Ed. will continue working to serve families and students [who will] continue to receive the same educational outcomes that they’ve received for 30 years,” Wade added. 

School impact

Started in 1993, MECHS is a non-traditional evening high school that offers students mastery or work-at-your-own-pace style classes. Over 2,700 students attend the charter school’s campuses across 18 northern Georgia counties, including Dawson and its neighboring counties. In 2022, 479 students graduated from MECHS.

During a Dec. 12 interview, Fitzpatrick explained that the charter school has been able to help students who may struggle in the standard high school setting graduate and “be extremely successful.” Many of the students may have to work during the day or tend to kids of their own, he said.

High school diplomas can make a big difference when it comes to lifetime salary earnings–like $200,000 to $400,000 difference. 

“You think about a person who earns that much more over a lifetime,” Fitzpatrick said. “They’re paying more into the system. And not only that, if they’re earning more, they’ll use less [financial] assistance from the state.”

The outreach director noted the higher percentage of people that are incarcerated without a high school diploma.

“By getting them across that stage and helping them finish their high school education, it’s a way of keeping people out of the judicial system,” Fitzpatrick added. “And isn’t that the whole goal of Georgia’s education system…helping people to be productive citizens?”

A path forward

Wade explained that the current legislation allows for local schools to come up with a plan for campuses to become locally authorized through a city or county school system instead of being authorized through the state.

After the law was passed last year, Fitzpatrick said he and his colleagues realized the potential challenges of implementing it. A consultant was later hired to work with the charter school system and the state Department of Education to address their concerns. 

With MECHS’s number of campuses and student population, Fitzpatrick said that would be “a lot for one local system to take in” in terms of funding, accountability and operations. 

Currently, out of the 18 collaborative school systems MECHS partners with, there hasn’t been a local school system who has indicated they would authorize Mountain Education as a local- authorized charter school, Fitzpatrick added.

“It’ll be minor changes that impact adults…like bringing the funding formula in line with [public] K-12 and changes to accountability, governance and structure,” Wade said. “There won’t be an impact on students' opportunities to learn in a non-traditional setting.”

Fitzpatrick reiterated students’ need for more options on acquiring their high school education. 

“If the traditional model works for you, then absolutely go with that,” he said. “We’re not in a competition with public high schools.”

“But if you're struggling in that kind of system,” he added, “we’d love to be your safety net and help you finish that education instead of you being a high school dropout.”