Black Atlanta voters behind decisive defeat of Amendment 1

Chandra Brown casts her ballot as voters waited Nov. 8 at Henry W. Grady High School. Voters in majority black precincts strongly supported a charter school amendment in 2012, but they turned their backs on this year’s education issue, the Opportunity School District, which also had a strong charter school element. JOHN SPINK /JSPINK@AJC.COM

Credit: John Spink

Credit: John Spink

Chandra Brown casts her ballot as voters waited Nov. 8 at Henry W. Grady High School. Voters in majority black precincts strongly supported a charter school amendment in 2012, but they turned their backs on this year’s education issue, the Opportunity School District, which also had a strong charter school element. JOHN SPINK /JSPINK@AJC.COM

Black voters have historically supported the creation of charter schools in Georgia, but they were a major force in the election day defeat of the referendum that could have turned low-scoring schools in their neighborhoods into the independently run schools.

Majority black metro Atlanta precincts voted overwhelmingly in 2012 to let the state, and not just school districts, create charter schools. But nearly 70 percent of them voted against this year’s constitutional amendment that would have created a statewide school district to take over “chronically failing” schools. That compares with 55 percent of “no” votes in majority white precincts.

Both of the referendums were pitched as a solution to failing schools in poor and mostly black neighborhoods.

So what changed?

For one thing, local black leaders such as civil rights icon Andrew Young came out against this year's proposal. And unlike in 2012, opponents had the time and money to organize an effective TV and radio campaign. Also, this latest amendment differed from the earlier one in that it could have turned over existing public schools to charter management operators rather than creating new schools. A key issue for opponents was loss of local control.

That argument got the attention of voters such as Cynthia Ferguson, a DeKalb County resident who said she voted against Amendment 1 though she has a grandchild in a charter school.

“I’m not opposing charters,” said Ferguson, who is black. “I’m opposing them taking away the voice of the educators and the parents.”

Still, Georgia was not the only place where a charter-related referendum was defeated. Voters in Massachusetts rejected a proposal to raise the cap on the number of charters in that state.

Alan Abramowitz, who teaches political science at Emory University, said growing skepticism of charter schools may have weakened enthusiasm for Deal’s proposal.

As charter schools have multiplied, the scrutiny of their performance has grown, and on average Georgia's state charter schools have been found to perform about the same as traditional schools.

“In the last four years, there’s been more criticism of charter schools,” Abramowitz said. “We know now that sometimes they work and sometimes they don’t.”

Others, such as charter school advocate Michael Petrilli, attributed the losses in Georgia and Massachusetts to opposition funded by the National Education Association, a teachers union.

“If you’ve got an organized opposition on one of these amendments, it’s really hard to get a yes vote,” said Petrilli, president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, an education policy research and advocacy organization in Washington, D.C.

Normally, constitutional amendments in Georgia pass with ease. That's due in no small part to the language on the ballot, which is written by the governor and the lawmakers who put it there. Critics of the ballot questions in both 2012 and 2016 criticized the language as misleading in a way that favored passage.

But unlike four years ago, the NEA put around $5 million into the fight against this year's ballot measure, an extraordinary sum for a constitutional amendment. Deal's forces had at least a couple of million dollars at their disposal, too, but may have underestimated the momentum of the opposition.

“Hindsight’s 20-20, but if we’d gotten out ahead of it and people had understood the bill,” mused Sen. Butch Miller, R-Gainesville, a Deal ally and the lead sponsor of the Opportunity School District legislation. The General Assembly, by a two-thirds vote in 2015, put it on this year’s ballot. Voters might have approved it had they heard favorable arguments sooner, he said. “They heard the scare tactic of losing local control and a state takeover of schools, and they made up their minds before they heard the facts.”

Opponents had more time to organize this year than in 2012. That referendum cleared the legislature just months ahead of the general election. This time they had a year and a half to malign the new amendment. They characterized it as a way for a state government driven by “crony capitalism” to seize control of local schools and hand them over to for-profit corporations.

Amendment 1 would have authorized the state to take over schools deemed "chronically failing" by a state scoring system. The state would also have taken the local tax dollars allotted to those schools. The state could then either have shuttered them, run them directly or handed them to charter operators, of either the non-profit or for-profit variety. Teachers' jobs would have been on the line in any of those scenarios.

The message about a corporate takeover at the expense of residents and teachers resonated with voters such as Jamal Hill, 24, who was among the 68 percent of voters at DeKalb County’s Candler precinct to cast a ballot against Amendment 1. As he exited the polling place at St. Philip AME Church on election day, he gave this terse explanation for his “no” vote: “Because the government is corrupt.”

Though Amendment 1 could have led to the creation of more charter schools, Louis Elrod, the leader of the opposition movement, said he didn’t think public sentiment about charter schools played significantly into its defeat.

The amendment lost because it was bad legislation, Elrod said, and that galvanized opposition, which attracted the campaign cash.

“You’re not going to have the resources to defeat something like this unless there’s already a groundswell of opposition,” said Elrod, who managed the Keep Georgia Schools Local campaign.

Ben Scafidi, an economist at Kennesaw State University who studies education policy and voter attitudes on school choice, also did not see this as a referendum on charter schools.

That's because the charter schools created under Amendment 1 would have been a new hybrid, with the freedoms of traditional charter schools but the obligations of regular neighborhood schools. Like traditional charter schools, they would have been overseen by independent governing boards. But they would have had to serve all students in a fixed attendance zone, like traditional neighborhood schools do. And those students wouldn't necessarily have chosen to be there.

“I think when you take the choice out of charter schools, people don’t like it,” said Scafidi, who said he sensed the amendment’s defeat as early as a year ago, when he spoke about it at a conservative forum and got “push back” from some in attendance. He got a similar reaction from a Tea Party group earlier this year, and even his neighbors seemed dead set against the idea of ceding control over schools — even the lowest-performers — to state government.

“The concern really seemed to be about pushing power and authority up,” he said. His impression is that the well-funded advertising campaign didn’t contribute much to the defeat because the opposition predated it, especially among influential black leaders, such as ministers and lawmakers.

“The African American leadership came out both barrels against it,” he said.

Whatever ultimately was responsible for the defeat, it was decisive. Despite that, Miller, the Gainesville lawmaker behind the failed bill, said he still wants to try again to turn around Georgia’s lowest-scoring schools. Teacher and school leaders opposed Amendment 1. Miller said he hopes to enlist them “to come back with a bill with another approach, with a better approach.”

He said he has spent his life supporting schools and once wore a Superman outfit to a Gainesville elementary school to promote reading. As Deal’s senior Senate floor leader, he talked briefly with the governor about the defeated amendment and what comes next.

“I hope that we will not be — as a state, as a people, as a community — that we will not be deterred from helping those that are most vulnerable,” Miller said. “We’re not giving up. We’ll find another route.”