School chief's stand on charters debated

Georgia Schools Superintendent John Barge's opposition to the charter schools constitutional amendment has angered fellow Republicans even as it has energized opponents of the proposed amendment.

Gov. Nathan Deal, who met with Barge Tuesday before the superintendent announced his opposition, said Barge has gone back on a campaign pledge.

"I am discouraged that Superintendent Barge has changed his position since the campaign trail and no longer believes parents should have public school options for their children," Deal said in a statement. "His new position doesn't change mine. I stand with two-thirds of the General Assembly and will uphold the promises I made when I ran for office."

The proposed amendment, certain to be hotly debated between now and its appearance on the ballot in November, would re-create a state body to consider charter schools, giving applicants an alternative to local school boards. Critics say it is a blow to local control.

Campaigning for office in 2010, Barge filled out a survey from the Georgia Charter Schools Commission stating his support for charter schools. He also said he would support having charter applications considered by local school boards, the state Board of Education and the Georgia Charter Schools Commission.

But Barge noted on that survey that he found it "greatly disappointing" an additional entity - the commission - was needed to consider charter applications.

"It was the same then as it is now," Georgia Department of Education spokesman Matt Cardoza said of Barge's position.

The Georgia Supreme Court in 2011 declared the state commission invalid. The amendment would re-establish it.

After meeting with the governor and calling other legislative leaders to tell them he was coming out against the proposed amendment, Barge released a statement spelling out the reasons for his opposition.

Traditional public schools are underfunded, he said, noting that many do not have the money to carry out a full 180-day school year. Teacher pay has been cut through furloughs, and teaching staffs have been reduced even as the student population grows, Barge noted.

Re-establishing the commission and having it approve as many charter applications as it was approving before it was shut down would cost the state $430 million over the next five years, Barge said.

"Where would that money come from?" Barge asked in an interview with the AJC after his announcement.

Legislation already passed by lawmakers and signed by Deal has established separate, supplemental funding for charter schools that are approved by the state and are therefore ineligible for local property tax money.

Barge's stance cheered fellow opponents of the proposed amendment, who predicted that the superintendent's position will energize local education leaders to press the fight.

"I think it's going to have a big impact," said Calvine Rollins, president of the Georgia Association of Educators, which opposes the proposed amendment. "What he released today is very timely."

Frank Petruzielo, superintendent in Cherokee County - a charter schools hotspot where Deal signed the legislation that put the proposed constitutional amendment on the ballot - praised Barge.

"It took a great deal of courage for the state superintendent of schools to take this stand advocating for critically needed funding for existing public school systems throughout the state of Georgia," Petruzielo said.

Mickey Peace, publisher of a weekly newspaper in the southeastern Georgia town of Claxton, said he's inclined to oppose the proposed amendment, as Barge does.

For Peace, 64, the issue is the money needed to pay for state-approved charter schools.

"That's another burden that we do not need," Peace said. "Mr. Barge's opposition to this amendment should prompt all Georgians to take a closer look at this ballot measure."

CHARTER BASICS

Charter schools are public schools that are independently managed and given organizational and curriculum flexibility while meeting state and federal education standards.

Such schools are approved by local school boards or, if rejected by the local board, by the state Board of Education. The Georgia Charter Schools Commission used to serve as another route to having a charter application approved, but the state Supreme Court ruled in 2011 that the commission lacked constitutional authority.

Charter school supporters fear the state Board of Education's power to authorize schools could also be challenged, potentially limiting charter school growth..

Pro-charter legislators were successful in their push to have a proposed amendment to the constitution placed on the ballot this fall. If it is approved, the commission will be re-established.

Opponentsargue the state is not adequately funding traditional public schools and that authorizing and giving state money to more charter schools would hurt traditional public schools.

Backers say the amendment is necessary to guarantee the state's power to authorize and fund charter schools, which they describe as an important choice for parents of children attending failing traditional public schools.

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