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School choice advocates celebrate passage of constitutional amendment at rally

Braving stiff winds and bracing 34-degree temperatures at the state Capitol, school choice advocates celebrated the passage of the charter schools constitutional amendment during a rally Thursday morning.

The rally, which drew an estimated crowd of 1,100 students, parents and school officials — plus WNBA superstar Lisa Leslie — was held in conjunction with National School Choice Week, which began on Sunday and will run through this coming Sunday.

Held each year to draw attention to the push to give parents options beyond traditional public schools, this year’s rally was more of a celebration than a clarion call.

Indeed, a disc jockey actually played the ubiquitous happy times song, “Celebration” by Kool and the Gang, as the students and adults waved pro-school-choice signs.

“I think we’ve seen with the charter schools amendment’s passage that we’ve laid a great foundation,” said Matt Arkin, head of the Georgia Cyber Academy, a public online school. “But that’s all it is — a foundation. The results were great, but we saw the institutional resistance to providing more options.”

Traditional public schools came in for a heavy dose of criticism during the rally, with speakers saying the system has performed poorly.

“The graduation rate is 69 percent,” said RaShaun Holliman, a manager with the Center for an Educated Georgia, a research group that supports alternatives to traditional public schools. “That’s not acceptable, right? Until our graduation rate is close to 100 percent, we’re going to be coming out here no matter what the temperature is — even if it rains!”

After posing for pictures with some in the crowd, Leslie recounted her struggles with standardized tests after attending public school in Los Angeles.

“By the time it was time for me to take my standardized tests, I realized I wasn’t prepared,” she said. “When you’re doing your best, when that’s not enough, someone should have to answer for that. We have to do something different.”

Tony Lowden, a Macon pastor and a member of the new State Charter Schools Commission, took his own pound of flesh from the traditional public school system.

“This state is too great to have failing schools across this state,” he said. “We won’t rest until every school in Georgia is performing at a high level.”

Verdalia Turner, president of the Georgia Federation of Teachers, said school choice groups are participating in a campaign to demonize traditional public schools to justify using public money on alternatives.

“I have to give them an ‘A’ for orchestration, but I’ll give them an ‘F’ in ethics and telling the truth,” Turner said. “It’s just a campaign, and the public is being played.”

Renee Lord of Stratham, who has a seventh-grader in private school and a fourth-grader at the Georgia Cyber Academy, said the state is beginning to embrace more choices.

“All children need the opportunity to attend a school that best fits their needs,” Lord said. “The needs of children are so diverse that having more options allows parents to make more choices.”