Suit against Deal challenges charter schools amendment ballot language

A Dalton teacher and an Atlanta pastor have filed a lawsuit asking Fulton County Superior Court not to enforce the charter schools constitutional amendment even if it is approved by voters.

The ballot language and a preamble that describes it are “affirmatively and purposely misleading,” says a lawsuit filed by Rev. Timothy McDonald, senior pastor at First Iconium Baptist Church in Atlanta, and Beverly Hedges, who has 22 years of education experience. The lawsuit names Gov. Nathan Deal, along with Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle and Secretary of State Brian Kemp.

Deal has been a high-profile, vocal supporter of the amendment. His spokesman, Brian Robinson, would not offer a response to being named in the suit.

McDonald’s and Hedges’ suit is at least the third legal action that has sprung from the intensely-debated charter schools amendment issue. Supporters of the charter schools amendment requested an injunction to block what they described as the illegal use of taxpayer resources for campaigning against the amendment. Those requests were rejected by judges in Fulton and Gwinnett counties.

Gerry Weber, the attorney representing McDonald and Hedges, said no date has been set to hear his clients’ complaint. He is requesting an injunction that would block implementation of the amendment, should it be approved by voters.

Weber said courts have overturned election results and ordered new elections when there has been a problem with the ballot.

The specific language Georgia voters will be asked is this: “Shall the Constitution of Georgia be amended to allow state or local approval of public charter schools upon the request of local communities?”

That language was the subject of a protracted debate in the General Assembly earlier this year.

McDonald, Hedges and other opponents say that language leaves the impression that the state and local school boards can’t already approve charter school applications.

In fact, the state and local boards do have that authority, though amendment supporters worry that the state’s power in this area could be threatened if voters don’t approve the amendment.

Before reading the actual ballot question, voters will see a preamble or description that says the amendment “provides for improving student achievement and parental involvement through more public school options.”

That language, opponents argue, is little more than advertising for the amendment’s passage and is not the neutral description they say would be more appropriate.

“What the ballot should do is give a balanced presentation of the content of the constitutional amendment,” Weber said.

Weber said Deal and Cagle are being sued because they are members of a state board that distributes the ballot language to newspapers, and Kemp is included because his office distributes ballots.

Only a week remains before voters go to the polls.

The charter schools amendment would guarantee the state’s authority to create charter schools and it would create a commission to consider applications for them.

Supporters say the amendment’s passage is needed to protect from legal challenges the state’s ability to create charter schools, which they describe as alternatives to parents whose children attend failing traditional public schools.

Opponents say the amendment would lead to the creation of additional charter schools, which would sap money from traditional public schools.

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