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State committee OKs controversial Greene County charter school

    ATLANTA — The proposal for a controversial charter school in Greene County cleared its next-to-last hurdle Wednesday with a nod from the state charter school committee.
    The petition for Lake Oconee Academy — which opponents say intentionally excludes minority and low-income students — is expected to gain the approval of the entire state Board of Education on Thursday.
    Supporters of the school say they’re not trying to discriminate against the county’s poor children. They want to create a neighborhood school in the posh Lake Oconee developments to attract more middle class families to the area and spur economic development.
    ‘‘It’s frustrating to me to listen to the political nature of some of these comments when all we’re doing is creating a great place to educate our kids,’’ said Mike Kelly, a vice president for Reynolds Plantation, the main development along the lake.
    But some Greene County residents say it harkens back to the private school movement of the 1960s, after the U.S. Supreme Court ordered the desegregation of public schools.
    ‘‘This is an attempt to create a school that is separate and unequal,’’ former Greene County school board chairman Felton Hudson told the state committee. ‘‘It’s not an opportunity to further the education of our children.’’
    The debate has divided the county, which has been plagued with racial tension for years.
    Blacks make up 40 percent of the county — which is about 75 miles east of Atlanta — but the majority of them live north of Interstate 20 in Greensboro and Union Point. The 2,100-student public school system is 70 percent black, and more than three-quarters of students are eligible for free or reduced lunches.
    The charter school would serve students primarily from the Lake Oconee developments — including Reynolds Plantation and Reynolds Landing, resort-style communities with a Ritz-Carlton Lodge. Twenty percent of the school’s planned 400 seats would be reserved for students outside the primary attendance zone.
    ‘‘We do think it’s a great opportunity for the community, but I am very saddened by how it’s divided the community,’’ state charter committee chairwoman Linda Zechmann said. ‘‘I hope the community will have some healing and that it isn’t a divisive issue forever.’’
    The committee started to take a vote on the petition, but Zechmann instead said she would simply move the proposal to the full Board of Education’s agenda without a formal recommendation. None of the committee members voiced opposition to the proposed school despite a battery of pointed comments from community members upset over the enrollment zones.
    Greene County residents haven’t had to deal with enrollment zones — which are in place in many public school districts across the state — because the county has only four public schools, all of which have open enrollment, said Andrew Broy, director of charter schools for the state.
    Charter schools, however, don’t have to follow such practices because they are free from state and federal regulations and are required only to meet standards negotiated between the school and state officials.
    The schools must still meet state and federal education standards like the No Child Left Behind law, but have more leeway in how they get there.
    Nationally, charter schools are much less integrated than traditional public schools, said Erica Frankenberg, a researcher at UCLA’s Civil Rights Project. She authored a 2003 study that found the charter schools in many states were either overwhelmingly white or black with little mingling, she said.
    ‘‘These are publicly funded schools just like other public schools, and we need to pay attention to the racial balance in them,’’ Frankenberg said.
    ————
    On the Net:
    Greene County Board of Education: http://www.greene.k12.ga.us/system/index.htm
    State Board of Education: http://www.doe.k12.ga.us/pea—board.aspx

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