Charter schools vote: A primer

The November ballot question about a charter schools amendment to the state constitution has fired up those in the know - and confused just about everyone else.

One side says the amendment is a terrible, money-sucking threat to traditional public schools. The other says it’s needed to make clear, once and for all, that the state has the power to create charter schools that can help, not hurt, public education.

For voters having a hard time sorting out the facts, here’s a walk-through on an issue that both sides agree marks a fork in the road for education in Georgia:

Charter schools are public schools. There are more than 100 of them in Georgia, and some of your tax money goes to support them. Would-be charter school organizers promise in the school’s charter (a founding document that is a sort of contract) to meet certain education goals – say, close the gap in academic achievement between minority and non-minority students or provide instruction tightly focused on science, technology, engineering and math. Charter schools are granted flexibility as they pursue those goals. They can, for example, hire non-certified teachers. They can have a non-standard school schedule. They are not required to provide transportation. They can be single-gender.

To start a charter school, parents, former educators or charter school companies take the lead in writing a proposal.

In Georgia, that proposal – the charter school application – must first be brought before the local school board. If the application is approved by the local board and then by the state Board of Education, school organizers are given a period of years to operate before the charter must be renewed. The school would receive state funding. It could receive federal funding depending on its student population – whether, for example, there is a high percentage of poor students or whether some students have special needs. And the school would receive a share of the local property tax money districts send to their schools.

If the charter application is rejected by the local school board, organizers can appeal to the state Board of Education, which can overrule the local board and grant the charter. In that instance, the school would receive state and federal money but not local property tax money.

There used to be a third path to approval – the old Georgia Charter Schools Commission. Schools approved by the commission also got state, federal and, over the objection of local school boards, local property tax money.

Several school districts, including Gwinnett, sued, and the Georgia Supreme Court ruled in 2011 that the commission did not have the constitutional power to authorize charters. Bye-bye, commission. Hello, charter amendment fight.

Some legislators, worried that charter school opponents would next challenge the state Board of Education’s ability to approve charter schools that local districts turned down, pushed for a constitutional amendment that would clarify the state’s power to authorize them via a separate commission.

“I know what the opposition (to the amendment) is saying: ‘We’d never sue,’” said Tony Roberts, president and chief executive officer of the Georgia Charter Schools Association. “Well, they didn’t give us any warning that they were going to sue to shut the commission down, either.”

The amendment on November’s ballot, if passed, would again establish a charter schools commission to consider charter school applications. The commission would have seven members appointed by the state Board of Education. Three recommendations for appointment would come from the governor, two from the president of the state Senate, and two from the House speaker.

Supporters see passage of the amendment as the only way to make sure the state can continue to approve charter schools, which they view as alternatives for parents whose children attend failing traditional public schools.

Opponents see it as a power grab to dilute the authority of local school boards. (Applications for statewide, online charter schools won’t have to be considered by local school boards, but other charter applicants would still have to go to local boards first, with the commission or the state Board of Education as a fall-back.)

Opponents also say the amendment threatens funding to traditional public schools. In putting the amendment on the ballot, state lawmakers also changed the school funding system to create a separate pot of money for charter schools that were not approved at the local level. Lawmakers said the idea was to make up for the absence of local property tax money, but opponents say lawmakers went too far.

An analysis performed by an aide to Gov. Nathan Deal, who supports the amendment, found that charter schools approved by the state will receive more state money per pupil than traditional public schools. The funding change will remain in place whether or not the amendment is approved.

Opponents of the amendment, including Georgia Schools Superintendent John Barge, have argued its passage would lead to more charter schools and less money for traditional public schools.

Based on the approval rate of the prior commission before it was shut down , Barge estimated a reborn commission would approve seven charter schools per year over the next five years. Barge estimated the 35 new schools would cost the state $430 million - a figure that would equal about 6 percent of the entire budget for the state Department of Education.

Amendment supporters say no one knows how many charter schools would be approved.

Barge also argues a commission is an unnecessary, added layer of government. Further, opponents say that because the commission would get its funding from the schools it approves, it would have an incentive to approve applications.

Ultimately, they fear, state-approved charter schools would proliferate to create a dual education system - one overseen by local school boards and another overseen by the state.

Supporters say those are excuses to oppose charter schools because they shake up the status quo in public education.

“To me, it’s obvious that people who oppose this (amendment) don’t support charter schools,” Roberts said. “They don’t support having charter schools being approved.”

Finally, pro- and anti-amendment forces have tussled over ballot question language.

Opponents object to the amendment’s description on the ballot, which tells voters the amendment “provides for improving student achievement and parental involvement through more public charter school options.”

State Sen. Vincent Fort, an Atlanta Democrat who led the fight against the amendment in the General Assembly, called the description “fairy tale language.”

Roberts said the description is fair because charter school applications that don’t promise better education outcomes won’t be approved.

The amendment asks: “Shall the Constitution of Georgia be amended to allow state or local approval of public charter schools upon the request of local communities?”

Opponents say the wording falsely implies that local boards and the state can’t already approve charter applications. Roberts said supporters wanted to make sure voters knew the commission would not diminish local boards’ authority.

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