Friday, October 19, 2012

Ga. charter school ballot measure sparks controversy

The presidential race isn’t the only reason to go to the polls over the next few weeks. One big reason in Georgia is the charter schools referendum. In Georgia, this ballot measure has generated almost as much confusion and controversy as the election between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney.

Charter schools are public schools that receive public money, but are exempt from many normal rules in exchange for being more accountable. Charter schools cannot charge tuition and often have waiting lists for admissions. In some cases admissions are assigned by lottery. Although politically popular, charter school results are mixed. Some studies have indicated that they do not perform better than traditional public schools, while others paint a better picture.

According to Ballotpedia, the proposed text of the amendment is: “Shall the Constitution of Georgia be amended to allow state or local approval of public charter schools upon the request of local communities?” According to the Georgia Department of Education, Georgia already has a number of charter schools; however these are run by local school districts. In 2011, the state Supreme Court struck down a state commission that could approve charter schools over the objections of local school boards.

What the amendment would actually do would reinstate the State Charter Commission according to the Augusta Chronicle. The commission could override local denials for charter school applications. These local charter schools would be financed by local money. The amendment would also allow the commission to set up state charter schools with a statewide “attendance zone.” These schools would be financed with money appropriated by the General Assembly, not local tax money.

Opponents of the measure see the amendment as a threat to local control of schools and tax money. The measure is opposed by many school boards, administrators, and teacher groups around the state. The NAACP has also announced its opposition to the measure, telling the Augusta Chronicle that the “amendment is not about fixing the schools and school systems, but is designed to decide who gets to spend our hard earned tax dollars for ‘special schools,’ which are not under the control of local school boards.”

In a letter to the Monroe Patch, state School Superintendent John Barge also states his reasons for opposition to the amendment. Barge says that he favors charter schools, but wants to preserve local control. He also says, “Until all of our public school students are in school for a full 180-day school year, until essential services like student transportation and student support can return to effective levels, and until teachers regain jobs with full pay for a full school year, we should not redirect one more dollar away from Georgia’s local school districts.”

Proponents argue that the amendment is not about tax money or control of schools, but school choice. In the Columbus Ledger-Inquirer, Rep. Richard Smith (R-Columbus) says, “There are some school districts around the state who will not even talk to people in their area about setting up a charter school.”

Maureen Downey wrote in the Atlanta Journal about the concern that charter schools would attract for-profit school operators to the state. Downey references a Reuters article that points out a federal program called EB-5 allows foreign investors to essentially buy visas by investing in certain projects. Over the past few years, charter schools have become a popular investment choice for wealthy would-be immigrants. Reuters notes that the program benefits both schools and investors since schools in general and charter schools in particular often face financial pressures.

The outside funding for charter schools may make up for the discrepancy between funding for local schools and state charter schools. Downey notes in the AJC that the state has confirmed that under the law, more money per student would be sent to state charter schools than local schools.

In an op-ed in the Savannah Morning News, Senator Buddy Carter (R-Savannah), one of the senators who drafted the amendment, explained its purpose. According to Carter, “special” schools were authorized and defined in Georgia’s 1966 constitution. When the constitution was changed in 1983, the General Assembly was authorized to create special schools, but the term was not defined. Carter says the lack of a definition led to the ruling against the Georgia Charter Schools Commission.

Carter further notes that local control is preserved because the first step to creating a charter school is to apply to the local school board. These local charter schools would receive money from the local school district.

If the applicant feels that the local school board has unfairly denied the charter application, the next step would be to appeal to the state. Carter says, “Not a single dollar will be taken out of the traditional public school system” because state charter schools will be funded by money appropriated by the General Assembly. “Voting in favor of this amendment will give the ultimate local control — it will give parents more options and allow them to be more involved in the decision-making process in public education,” according to Carter.

Given the current state of the economy and cuts to the state budget, there is some question about where the additional money for state charter schools would be found, but supporters like Carter are adamant that it would not be redirected from existing public schools. This might mean cuts in other areas of the state budget, higher taxes, or donations and investments from private individuals and businesses.

While the amendment is very controversial, polling shows that voters are in favor. The most recent poll, a September poll by Sand Mountain Communications, found 50 percent of voters favored the amendment with 25 percent against. Another 25 percent of voters are undecided. A last minute blitz of opposition ads by groups like Vote Smart Georgia could easily sway voters on such a convoluted issue.

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