Constitutional amendments usually pass without much of a fight in Georgia, but the well-funded campaign to put the state in the business of fixing failing schools was confronted by a rebellion with even more money.
More than $7 million, an unheard of sum for a constitutional amendment, armed the battle over Gov. Nathan Deal’s Opportunity School District. Unlike the other three ballot amendments Tuesday, two of which passed with more than 80 percent of the vote, Amendment 1 failed with just 40 percent of the vote.
To find out why, go back to 2012, when teachers and their advocacy groups were on their heels. The Clayton County School District had lost accreditation, and DeKalb was at risk. Clayton regained accreditation, but faith in local school leadership was shaken. Recessionary budget cuts that angered parents and dismayed teachers didn’t help the mood during the vote on a constitutional amendment to allow the state to create charter schools.
It passed easily. Teacher advocacy groups were unprepared, and learned their lesson.
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Georgia Association of Educators president Sid Chapman went before 10,000 national delegates in 2015 to outline Deal’s proposal to take over “chronically failing” schools. The National Education Association, GAE’s parent group, ended up pouring at least $4.7 million into the fight, roughly double the $2.6 million Deal mustered.
“I didn’t know we would get as much as we got,” said Chapman, who thought his group would lose this fight when the General Assembly approved the referendum last year. Ballot questions are drafted by supporters, and invariably cast the measure in an attractive light.
But opposition grew into a movement that expanded to other groups, including the NAACP. Last summer, the Georgia PTA also came out against the constitutional amendment, which may have tipped the balance. Then, school boards weighted the scales more heavily against.
“It was a grassroots effort,” said Eric Tanenblatt, a veteran Georgia GOP fundraiser and strategist. He said opponents ran a misinformation campaign, albeit an effective one.
“There was information spread around that private industry was going to come in and run schools, and that just was not the case,” he said.
Chapman defended that message. The constitutional amendment would have allowed charter school operators, whether nonprofit or for-profit, to run schools. He noted the defeat of charter school measures in other states Tuesday, including Massachusetts.
“There is a national movement to destroy public education,” Chapman said. “There’s definitely a business model, the Koch brothers types … they’re always looking for a way to make a profit. This is why it resonated in Georgia.”
The corporate angle got ample play on TV and radio and at public forums, galvanizing opposition. The anti-establishment mood going into Tuesday, with mistrust of big institutions, likely didn’t help.
“I voted against it because I think the community should control. I don’t think we need to shift that control up,” said Angie Yeremian, 37, exiting her Brookhaven polling place with her two young children. She was influenced by what she read online and by conversations with friends in education.
Dozens of school boards, including some in Republican-heavy north Georgia — Deal’s home base — rejected the constitutional amendment for the same reason, as did the Cherokee County Republican Party.
Lisa-Marie Haygood, president of the Georgia PTA, said an “unlikely coalition” of blacks and whites of all income and education levels joined across partisan lines to defeat the measure.
Now, as with the presidential election, people are holding their breath, awaiting what comes next. Deal hasn’t said what he’ll do, but indicated a loss wouldn’t deter him.
“We’re going to look at everything that’s possible,” he said. “I’m going to continue to do everything I can to make sure we close that gap of educational opportunity.”
DeKalb superintendent Steve Green said he’s “hopeful” Deal will now partner with local districts rather than fighting them. Partnering to Green means providing additional money to address poverty. Schools need more counselors, social workers and buses, Green said. He said he met with Deal in May to discuss the issue, pointing out some DeKalb students change schools several times a year as their parents chase apartment discount offers. He wants to bus them to their original schools, even if they move across the county.
Deal wanted to see “research” indicating such programs are effective, and Green said he provided it.
Others predicted a less sanguine outcome, a governor stung by defeat at the hands of educators and others he accused of defending the status quo.
“Wounded animals fight back,” said Steve Anthony, a retired Georgia State University political science lecturer who led the state Democratic Party when it was in power. He predicted a vigorous push by Deal for education legislation in the next legislative session.
The governor has said he plans to focus on education, with a series of bills expected to take on a host of issues, including the state education funding formula. This defeat may not bode well for his plans, though.
Lawmakers may sense weakness and refuse to go along as Deal enters the twilight of his administration. Aspirants to the governor’s mansion and other politicians will be jockeying for the next election. Passage of the constitutional amendment might have kept them in line, since it would have suggested voters agreed with Deal, said University of Georgia political scientist Charles Bullock. This loss could embolden competing political agendas.
“If they think he can be beaten,” Bullock said, “they might be more willing to take him on.”
Staff writer Tamar Hallerman contributed to this article.