January 25, 2016 Atlanta - The crowd listens to the national anthem at the school choice rally. The rally took place at the state Capitol, and highlighted legislation aimed at expanding charter schools and other school choice options in Georgia.TAYLOR CARPENTER / TAYLOR.CARPENTER@AJC.COM
Photo: TAYLOR CARPENTER / AJC/taylor.carpenter@ajc.com
Photo: TAYLOR CARPENTER / AJC/taylor.carpenter@ajc.com

Opinion: Senate committee guts charter funding bill; will it be fixed?

What started as a promising legislative session for school choice is threatening to end in the ditch. A conference committee is still struggling to produce a final text of House Bill 217, which would raise the cap on the state’s tax-credit scholarship program, due to senators’ insistence on an automatic sunset date for the program. Now a bill thought to be coasting toward passage has hit a roadblock of its own.

HB 787 would nudge funding for state charter schools toward equity with traditional public schools. This relative handful of schools, which does not include charters approved by their local districts, now receive funding equal to that of the five lowest-spending districts in the state. The bill would have raised that to the state average. The effect would have been fairly small: The increase for the schools would have been to about $8,300 per pupil from about $7,900, or about half of what the state’s highest-spending districts allocate. The total cost of the bill is about $17 million, compared to total state spending this year for k-12 schools of about $9 billion. Still, it would have been a step in the right direction for public schools, and public-school students, long treated as second-class.

Apparently that was too much for the Senate education committee, which on Friday morning laced the bill with poison pills before approving it.

How bad is the new version of the bill? Put it this way: If you replaced “state charter schools” with “all public schools” in each of the bill’s provisions -- for example, the one that would slash their funding if they don’t beat the statewide average for performance -- teachers and administrators would march on the Gold Dome.

One wonders if there is a Republican-controlled state legislative chamber anywhere in the country more hostile to school choice than the Georgia Senate. Or, one more hostile to any issue favored by a super-majority of GOP primary voters, as school choice is.

The good news is there are still two days left in this session, and that can be an eternity. So there is time for lawmakers to make this right. To that end, Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle sent me this statement about his chamber’s new version of HB 787:

“I am optimistic the full Senate will take action to restore equitable funding for our charter schools. The bill as passed out of committee earlier today does not reflect my position, nor does it reflect the level of support within the Senate Republican Caucus for adequately funding our state charter schools. These schools represent a critical piece of our agenda to bring more public school options to students, parents and teachers in Georgia. I am going to continue to fight hard to see our state charter schools funded at a level that allows us to provide excellence to the students and families who are counting on them, and that fight does not end with today’s committee action.”

Cagle, who will be competing in the GOP gubernatorial primary in just less than two months from now, has a couple of days to ensure the Senate does the right thing.

About the Author

Kyle Wingfield
Kyle Wingfield
Kyle Wingfield joined the AJC in 2009. He is a native of Dalton and a graduate of the University of Georgia.