Panelists Valarie Wilson (from left), Alvin Wilbanks, Kelly McCutchen and Jan Jones face off on the issues during a televised forum on Georgia's proposed charter school amendment organized by the Atlanta Press Club and hosted at GPB in Atlanta on Sunday, Oct. 21, 2012.
Who should have final approval of charter schools — local school boards or the state — was hotly debated Sunday in a forum hosted by Atlanta Press Club and broadcast by Georgia Public Broadcasting to discuss a question voters will be asked to consider on Election Day.
The proposed amendment to the state constitution would establish a commission with the power to authorize charter schools that would receive state funding.
On the pro-amendment side of the panel were state Rep. Jan Jones and Kelly McCutchen, founder of Tech High Charter School. Opposing the amendment were Alvin Wilbanks, CEO and superintendent of Gwinnett County Public Schools and Valarie Wilson, president of the Georgia School Board Association. Moderating the discussion was WXIA-TV education reporter Donna Lowry, with Atlanta Journal-Constitution education reporter Maureen Downey fielding viewer questions live.
Charter schools are public schools that are given flexibility in exchange for meeting education goals laid out in the school’s approved charter. Georgia has had charter schools since 1995, and there are more than 100 of them.
Jones said the amendment is needed because some local school boards have been turning down charter school applications, thereby denying parents the ability to send their kids elsewhere if traditional public schools are failing them.
She said less than 2 percent of Georgians have the choice to send their kids to a charter school and yet the Georgia ranks 47th in graduation rates among the 50 states.
“Without an alternate authorizer, we simply won’t have these options for students,” Jones said.
Wilbanks said that charter schools can already appeal application denials to the state Board of Education, which can overrule a local board. He said creating a new commission is a bad use of taxpayer dollars because it would add another layer of government — one that would not be accountable to taxpayers since members would be appointed and not elected.
Wilbanks and Wilson said local school boards have a long history of approving charter schools, which they believe can complement and support the work of local school districts. They said that they are not anti-charter schools.
The 17 people who attended the debate said they were affiliated with either the pro or anti-amendment campaigns. Mark Peevy, executive director of the Families for Better Public Schools campaign committee, which supports the amendment, said he had encouraged supporters to engage voters at other public forums this weekend, since the Atlanta Press Club forum was not set up for audience visibility or feedback.
However, Peevy and campaign spokesman Bert Brantley said the forum provided a great opportunity for his campaign to tell the story of how children can benefit from charter schools.
“People really got a chance to see some of the issues,” Brantley said. “Our focus on the campaign side has been on children and more opportunities.”
Ann Crow, a Forsyth County School Board member who opposes the amendment, said the system of approval that is currently in place works.
“Funding is an issue,” Crow said, speaking about creating a new commission. “To have to spend tax dollars on something that’s not necessary does not make sense.”
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