In the absence of a contest for governor or U.S. Senate near the top of the ticket, this year’s most contentious state-related item on the fall ballot is the charter amendment. Charter schools have more flexibility in designing programs than “regular” schools do, and allow for greater parental input as well. There are two types of charters in Georgia. The first are those approved by local boards of education, which can either be new schools or existing schools that have been “converted” to charter status. The other type is those that have been rejected by a local board, but approved by the state, which are known as “state charters.”
The state set up a charter school commission in 2008 to rule on such applications, but a divided state Supreme Court ultimately ruled that only local boards of education can issue charters. The upcoming amendment would change the law to let the state also approve such schools. If it passes, the charter commission would be recreated, with members appointed by the governor, lieutenant governor and House speaker.
DECIDING which way to vote on the amendment is, admittedly, not an easy call, especially for those like this newspaper, which has been a frequent advocate of the charter concept through the years. Proponents of the measure make a number of arguments. They say passage would:
— Give low-income children in struggling schools options they currently do not have;
— Give parents more choice of where to send their children;
— Would give proposed charters an independent “appeals” process if they are turned down by local boards, which has happened numerous times around the state;
— Would make public schools more competitive, and without harming existing public school funding;
— Be a victory for the free-market system.
BUT AMENDMENT OPPONENTS have strong arguments of their own, and are making the more compelling case.
— They say the amendment takes power from local school boards that usually listen to parental desires and gives it instead to unelected political appointees in Atlanta that have no accountability to voters.
— They note while the appeals process to the State has been ruled unconstitutional, dissatisfied parents still have a remedy at the ballot box for school board members that deny a local Charter application.
— As for pro-amendment arguments that charters are better academically and that public schools are failing, they respond that in 2010-11 more Georgia public schools than charters met Adequate Yearly Progress under No Child Left Behind. Public-school supporters also are quick to note that charter schools do not have the same restrictions on maximum class sizes and that they are not even required to hire certified teachers.
— State school Superintendent John Barge has said the new state charter school agency that would be set up if this passes would cost taxpayers at least $1 million a year, and against a backdrop of school systems across the state — including Cherokee — beset by severe budget problems thanks to deep cutbacks in state funding in recent years. Those cutbacks have resulted in layoffs, furloughs, larger class sizes and shorter school years.
— Amendment advocates like to say the new state charter schools would not cost local taxpayers because they would be funded primarily by the state, unlike local school systems, which are funded primarily by property tax dollars. But unless the state is sitting on a huge new source of income that it has yet to tell the public about, it would be funding those new charters out of its existing education budget. There’s no way to do that without cutting spending elsewhere — most likely from the amount being spent on traditional public schools.
And speaking of money, there’s plenty of it to be made if this passes. And the recipients will not be the taxpayers, but the for-profit management companies from out of state that contract to run the new charters. And let’s not forget the lobbyists who stand to benefit, and above all, let’s not overlook the state legislators for whom the new setup would be a lucrative new source of campaign contributions.
WE WISH that lawmakers and others who eagerly criticize our public schools would exert just as much effort and enthusiasm trying to improve them instead. This amendment does little to address the underlying problems of failing schools. If the state and local education bureaucracy has too many onerous rules and regulations in place — (we’ll go ahead and answer that one with a loud “yes”) — those same lawmakers have the power to insist on change.
We believe that is a better approach than setting up an expensive parallel school system that siphons money and many of the most desirable students away from the existing schools.
The Charter School Amendment should be voted down.