Of the handful of Am Law 200 firms with practice groups dedicated to education, most focus on advising colleges and universities. Thanks to a confluence of events over the past five years, McKenna, Long & Aldridge has carved out a narrower niche: handling legal matters related to charter schools.
Now, the firm’s uncommon expertise has put it on the front lines of a constitutional showdown in Georgia over how the publicly funded, privately run schools should be established and funded. It’s a battle McKenna Long is happy to have, said Eric Tanenblatt, the firm’s senior managing director in Atlanta and head of its national government affairs group.
“We love what we do,” said Tanenblatt. “And one of the reasons why I think we have been so successful in this area is that there’s a lot of passion because we really believe in the charter school movement.”
McKenna Long’s involvement in the movement began in 2007. Frustrated by local school boards repeatedly rejecting applications from would-be charter school operators, the Georgia Charter Schools Association approached Tanenblatt, whose credentials include a stint as Governor Sonny Perdue’s chief of staff and serving as an adviser to Mitt Romney. (Tanenblatt, who currently serves as national finance co-chair for the Romney campaign, also sits on the boards of two organizations that advocate for charter schools: the Georgia Public Policy Foundation, a think tank, and the Georgia Chamber of Commerce.)
Moving to combat the local boards’ power, Tanenblatt and several McKenna Long colleagues worked with the charter school trade group to design and lobby for the creation of the Georgia Charter Schools Commission, a state-level body with the power to establish the schools.
Among the attorneys taking part in the effort was Ben Vinson, an associate who had previously served as counsel to the majority caucus in the Georgia House of Representatives, where he helped draft legislation. Vinson helped lobby legislators to approve the commission’s creation, but his work didn’t stop there.
“I wear many hats,” said Vinson, who over time has handled litigation, compliance, fundraising matters and other issues connected to charter schools.
After Georgia lawmakers voted to establish the commission in 2008, seven local school districts sued the state. The plaintiffs argued that the new body represented an unconstitutional attempt to bypass their control over public school funds.
McKenna lawyers entered the lawsuit on behalf of three charter schools named as defendants along with the commission: Ivy Preparatory Academy in Norcross, Charter Conservatory for Liberal Arts & Technology in Bulloch County and Heron Bay Academy in Henry County.
Vinson was part of the team that argued the case at both the trial and appellate courts. And when the Georgia Supreme Court ruled the commission unconstitutional last year, he joined the effort to launch a ballot initiative aimed at amending the Georgia Constitution. He now serves as legal counsel to Families for Better Public Schools, a pro-charter school group formed to raise money ahead of the November referendum.
“There was a need for an entity that is capable of raising and spending the money,” said Vinson, who also supports charter schools as a speaker at conferences and other events. “The charter association isn’t allowed to engage in that kind of campaign political activity.”
On the other side of the high court challenge were former Georgia Attorney General Michael Bowers, a partner at Balch & Bingham who represented Gwinnett County Public Schools, and Thomas A. Cox, who is of counsel at Carlock Copeland & Stair and represented Atlanta Public Schools and the DeKalb County School System.
The chain of events leading up to this November’s referendum began about three years ago when Gwinnett schools sued then-state school superintendent Kathy Cox, the state Department of Education and the Georgia Charter Schools Commission to stop the state from funding a charter school that the district had rejected. Gwinnett schools appealed Fulton County Superior Court Judge Wendy L. Shoob’s May 2010 ruling affirming the state’s approval of a charter school despite the school district’s rejection of the charter school’s application. Other local school districts then joined the fray.
Bowers could not be reached for comment, but Tom Cox (no relation to Kathy Cox) said his clients were not opposed to charter schools but rather the creation of a commission that could override the local control of the public school districts.
Cox said the 2011 Supreme Court victory ended his involved in the constitutional question surrounding charter school creation, and he’s not aware of any private firms that are involved with groups opposing the constitutional amendment to re-create the charter schools commission.
Vote Smart Georgia, a coalition of educator, school board, superintendent and PTA organizations, is campaigning to ward off what it calls a “state power grab.” Its spokeswoman, Jane Langley, said the group has legal representation through the member associations, such as the Professional Association of Georgia Educators, but “we don’t have any lawyer-politicians out there on the front lines.”
While the charter school amendment contest now seems more political than legal, charter schools in general have emerged since the state’s charter school statute was enacted in 1998 as a significant issue in the practice of education law.
“My involvement started with looking into how charter school law operates and what it meant in terms of advising my clients as to what were the grounds for accepting or rejection [charter school applications],” Cox said. “Charter schools have since gotten to be a bigger part of the picture.”
While he couldn’t estimate what percentage of his practice involves charter school cases or how lucrative the cases are, Cox said he was paid a flat rate of $96,000 for representing APS and DeKalb schools in their Supreme Court challenge. Cox said the ongoing charter school debate will continue to present opportunities for lawyers and firms on both sides.
“Some believe the public school system is a failure and here is a reform that can make it better; others see them as the first step toward vouchers and the undoing of the entire system of public education,” he said. “It’s an area that will occupy a lot more time of lawyers who are already repping public school systems.”
While the constitutional battle may be McKenna Long’s most high-profile charter school assignment, the firm’s practice group has expanded its client base beyond Georgia and now represents school operators and advocacy groups elsewhere, including the National Heritage Academies and the American Federation for Children.
The firm doesn’t represent its charter school clients pro bono, but Tanenblatt said in the case of the long-running battle in Georgia, some of the lawyers’ work has gone beyond what the firm charged for: “There’s a lot of work done and it isn’t always billed.” (The Atlanta Journal-Constitution recently reported that the firm earned $17,000 for serving as legal counsel for Families for Better Public Schools from May through July.)
The charter school group received a boost earlier this year when McKenna Long merged with San Diego-based Luce, Forward, Hamilton & Scripps in a move that netted the firm nine lawyers with experience handling real estate and other matters for California charter schools. With the additions, the practice now has more than 20 attorneys.
Tanenblatt said McKenna Long leaders viewed Luce Forward’s charter schools expertise as an added draw of a potential merger that would give the firm a chance “to create a clear national practice.”
Ken Stipanov, a San Diego-based partner who joined McKenna Long from Luce, has worked with charter schools in California for five years. “I started working with complicated financing structures,” Stipanov said. As an example, he cited his experience assisting High Tech High in San Diego in securing $12 million in qualified school construction bonds. It was, he said, the first California charter school to take advantage of the federal tax credit program, which was created by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Tax Act of 2009.
Luce had handled other work for High Tech High, and one of the firm’s partners, Maria Heredia, left Luce in 2003 and later became the school’s general counsel and senior vice president and general counsel of the California Charter Schools Association. Heredia is now the co-head of California Counsel Group, a San Diego boutique firm focused in part on charter schools.
Tanenblatt said McKenna Long already is seeing benefits from adding the Luce lawyers. “Up until eight months ago we didn’t have those attorneys doing real estate work,” he says. “Now we are taking these folks and marrying them up with what we do on the policy side.”
Call them reinforcements for the movement.
Daily Report Staff Writer Kathleen Baydala Joyner contributed to this article. An earlier version first appeared in The Am Law Daily, a Daily Report affiliate.