Why the Opportunity School District must be a constitutional amendment

One source of angst I hear about the Opportunity School District is the mere fact that it's a constitutional amendment.

Why, wonder some who oppose it and others who are just leery of it, must we change the Constitution to fix these chronically failing schools? (This is often asked as if the state Constitution is some sort of rarely changed document, like the U.S. Constitution. In fact it has been amended many times, even since the current version was adopted just 36 years ago.)

From there, the complaint usually heads in one of two directions. The first: Doesn’t existing law already give the state broad power to intervene in failing schools? The second: If we enshrine this power in the Constitution, won’t that give future lawmakers the ability to make any changes they want to the way the OSD works?

Let’s deal with both.

To the first objection, the answer is: Yes, but only in theory. That's because a 2011 Georgia Supreme Court ruling threw the state's authority over schools into great doubt.

That 4-3 ruling overturned Georgia's original law authorizing state charter schools. But it could cast a much larger shadow because the majority sweepingly declared — without justification, as Justice David Nahmias' dissent explained in exacting detail — the Constitution "grant(s) local boards of education the exclusive right to establish and maintain, i.e., the exclusive control over, general K-12 public education."

Never mind the state school board, state schools superintendent, House and Senate education committees, and reams of K-12 regulation from the state, not to mention the nearly $9 billion a year in state funding for public schools. Local boards’ control was deemed “exclusive.”

So if lawmakers want to step in and transfer control of a chronically failing school from the local board to the school’s leaders and parents, as the OSD provides for, they need a constitutional amendment. Make no mistake: Some of the very same people trying to reassure you this amendment duplicates existing law would be the first folks to file a lawsuit, citing that 2011 ruling, if the state tried to intervene without an amendment.

The second objection is more insidious. Critics don’t specify the terrible ways the law might be changed; they just suggest the state plans to use the OSD to ambush perfectly adequate schools.

Understand why this objection is made. Most negative claims about the OSD are undermined by the amendment's companion legislation, Senate Bill 133 , which details how the program would operate. That reality is inconvenient for the critics, so they simply say the law will be changed.

Well, any law can be changed; that's the way laws work. The fact that this one is tied to a constitutional amendment doesn't make that any more or less likely.

What’s important to note here is only the critics are even talking about changing the OSD. The original law was well-considered and much-debated. Problems may arise and need to be fixed, but the notion of a bait-and-switch, with radical changes to the law after voters approve the amendment, is unprecedented and absurd.

It all comes back to this: Speaking honestly about how the OSD would work doesn't raise enough concerns among enough Georgians to kill it. That's why you keep hearing opponents doing something else .