Georgia fight over Opportunity School District an expensive one

Tommy Usher, Atlanta Public Schools’ associate superintendent of schools k-8, eats breakfast with Garden Hills Elementary School students before class starts in August. EMILY JENKINS/ EJENKINS@AJC.COM

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Tommy Usher, Atlanta Public Schools’ associate superintendent of schools k-8, eats breakfast with Garden Hills Elementary School students before class starts in August. EMILY JENKINS/ EJENKINS@AJC.COM

Seven days until vote

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This fall’s fight over Gov. Nathan Deal’s plan to let the state intervene in chronically low-performing schools has become one of the most costly constitutional amendment battles in state history.

Opponents of the proposed Opportunity School District amendment on next week’s ballot had collected more than $5 million by the beginning of last week to fight the proposal, according to new disclosures. Almost all of it has come from out-of-state teachers unions and Georgia teacher groups.

The National Education Association alone had pumped $4.7 million into the Amendment 1 contest as of last week.

Meanwhile, the committee working to pass the amendment had raised $2.6 million as of the beginning of last week, including $1.4 million so far from Georgia Leads, a fund set up to push Deal's agenda that doesn't disclose its donors.

Other big donors include out-of-state school choice groups. Members of the the Walton family of Wal-Mart fame recently gave $400,000 to the effort to pass the amendment. Members of the family, which founded Wal-Mart, have given millions of dollars across the country for charter school and other pro-school choice advocacy.

The $7.6 million reported raised so far by the two sides makes the Opportunity School District fight one of the most expensive, if not the most expensive, constitutional amendment campaign in state history, said Charles Bullock, a longtime University of Georgia political scientist.

Bullock called it “an incredible amount of money.”

“Sonny Perdue got elected governor (in 2012) for $3 million,” he said.

Amendment 1 would enable an appointee of the governor to intervene in "chronically failing" schools using the local tax dollars that support them. Those schools would either be shuttered, run directly by a new statewide district or converted into charter schools under independent management.

Deal says passage would empower parents and teachers to “fix” bad schools and end an “inexcusable crisis” that has trapped more than 67,000 children in a cycle of poverty and crime. That is how many students attend the nearly 130 schools with a “failing” grade three years running on the state’s scoring system — schools that could be taken over if the measure passes. He has made personal fundraising pitches and plugged the proposal across Georgia.

Teacher groups, the Parent Teacher Association and other opponents say Deal is making a "power grab" for those schools and the dollars that go with them. They say it removes the control of those schools from local boards and communities. Opponents filed a lawsuit in September over the wording of the ballot item and preamble for the proposed amendment.

To put the $7.6 million raised for the campaign in perspective, the committee that successfully pushed passage of the state lottery in 1992 — one of the most contentious amendment fights in recent decades — spent about $700,000. That would be about $1.2 million today if adjusted for inflation.

In 2012, national school choice advocates opened their wallets wide for a proposed amendment in Georgia to set up another pathway to create charter schools. About $3 million was spent on that campaign, with about 90 percent of that by supporters. The measure was approved by voters.

Public school advocates who opposed that amendment were overwhelmed by the money flow in 2012. They didn’t want that to happen again, and the NEA promised early on to put big money into the race to pay for television commercials to defeat Amendment 1.

An Atlanta Journal-Constitution poll last month found that nearly 60 percent of voters would vote against the amendment, including a majority of Republicans willing to defy the governor. The governor has responded by promising more scrutiny of local school boards, some of whom voted to oppose the amendment.

The $4.7 million put into the campaign by the NEA is one of the largest contributions ever to a state campaign by one organization, business or individual.

Sid Chapman, the president of the Georgia Association of Educators, the state affiliate of the NEA, said the group’s funding of the fight against the amendment “is indicative of just how important this issue is to public education on a local, state and national scale.

“It is in line with the broad, grass-roots support that many other individuals and organizations in Georgia feel is not the right path to help children and schools in low-performing situations,” he said. “Amendment 1 just does not address the true cause of these children and schools’ struggles.”

But Tom Willis, the head of the committee backing the amendment, said: “It is disingenuous to see opponents of the Opportunity School District fund their defense of the failing status quo with an unprecedented amount of out-of-state union money.

“While they spend millions distorting the truth, our focus will continue to be on giving a voice to the families of 68,000 children trapped in chronically failing schools.”

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