Opportunity School District would create new kind of charter school

Georgia could get a new breed of charter schools if voters approve the constitutional amendment for an Opportunity School District.

Currently, there are two kinds of charters in Georgia when it comes to funding: those authorized by local school boards and those authorized by the State Charter Schools Commission. The local charters get state and local tax dollars, and the state charters get no local money.

Amendment 1 on the Nov. 8 ballot would change that, allowing the creation of state charter schools that get a share of local education tax revenue but don’t answer to a local district’s elected school board. That funding would last as long as a school performs well enough to retain its state charter, even after it exits the Opportunity district.

»» 7 things to know about the Opportunity School District

Amendment backers say school boards have neglected their worst-performing schools too long, dooming students to failure and a life of poverty. Opponents call it a takeover with no plan for school improvement other than a change of management and say it’s really a grab for local tax dollars.

The new state district would get up to a decade to turn around schools, and could either close them, convert them to charter schools or run them directly. Schools the state district runs directly would eventually return to local-district control while those converted to charters would remain autonomous under state authority.

Many current state charter schools are scoring a “D” on Georgia’s school report card. A couple are considered “chronically failing” and eligible for takeover if the referendum passes. People campaigning for Amendment 1 blame the performance on the smaller amount of money those schools get.

“If state charter schools were able to receive the same amount of funding that the local school districts receive per (child), then you would see a greater increase when it comes down to achievement for those students,” said Rep. Valencia Stovall, D-Ellenwood, one of the handful of Democrats who voted to put the referendum on the ballot.

Opponents say an incremental loss of local funding with each new Opportunity District charter school would undermine local school districts’ economy of scale. Most employ staffers in systemwide services — transportation directors and nutritionists, for instance — that would not necessarily serve those Opportunity charter schools.

“This is a burden for school districts in that budgets are built for the entire system,” said Valarie Wilson, executive director of the Georgia School Boards Association. “Once those dollars are gone, programs that are funded across the district for the good of all students are compromised through the gap left in the budget.”

This is just one of the many wrinkles in the Opportunity School District proposal. While 13 pages of legislation describe how the Opportunity district would operate, voters will see a simple ballot question, written by the proponents, with just two dozen words. It asks whether the state should be able to “intervene” to improve failing schools.

See and compare performance data for every Georgia school in The Ultimate Atlanta School Guide

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