Ex-senator sets up foundation for charter school systems

Dan Weber sponsored the bill that created the systems

The sponsor of legislation creating charter school systems has formed a taxpayer-supported foundation to lobby for the program his bill created.

Former Senate Education Chairman Dan Weber, a Dunwoody Republican, has been asking public charter systems to contribute $2 per student to fund his Georgia Charter System Foundation. Weber is the executive director of the foundation, which is governed by a board of three school superintendents whose districts are charter systems. The board meets this week and may approve a salary of $10,000 a month for Weber.

Charter systems are public school districts that are granted freedom from some regulations in exchange for promising to improve student achievement. As an extension of the charter school model that’s widely popular with lawmakers — and especially Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle — they get extra money each year that traditional public school systems don’t.

Weber, who left the state Senate at the end of 2010, said last week he’s sensitive to criticism of public officials who leave office and take state or lobbying jobs.

But, he added, “I am passionate about public education. I understand the (charter systems) legislation, I understand what state policymakers are trying to do, and I think I know all the right people to try to pull people together. I think I am the best situated to serve as the executive director.”

Cagle a big backer

He has a major supporter in Cagle, who wrote the 2007 bill on charter systems that Weber sponsored. Cagle says Weber is perfect for the job.

“Dan Weber is not (a lobbyist) for hire,” he said. “He has a passion more than anyone I’ve seen for reforming public education. If he can make a living reforming public education, our children and our state are going to be the better for it.”

Weber has not been paid yet in his role as the foundation’s executive director, although he has been working to get agreements to fund the organization since late last year.

While he would like to see many more districts consider becoming charter systems, Weber said his foundation will do more than just lobby for charters. He said it will be a clearinghouse for ideas that work and will help systems write grant proposals for funding. But lobbying will be a key job.

“We think it is important to educate state policymakers about what charter systems are doing,” Weber said. “We expect them to want their voices heard at the General Assembly.”

Some of the 16 current charter systems, while supporting the foundation’s efforts, said they couldn’t justify paying the $2 per student dues at a time when they are into their fifth year of spending cutbacks. Two other systems have been approved for charter status starting next school year.

Marietta City Schools agreed to pay $16,800 in dues, but one school board member, Brett Bittner, opposed it, saying, “I don’t like the idea of having taxpayer dollars going toward advocacy.”

Former House Appropriations Chairman Ben Harbin, R-Evans, said the General Assembly has been criticized in the past for its revolving door: lawmakers quit the Legislature and quickly take jobs lobbying their former colleagues. State law now makes legislators wait a year after leaving office before signing up to lobby. Because Weber left the General Assembly in 2010, he was not prohibited from registering to lobby during the 2013 session.

Still, Harbin said, “When you have a hand in drafting something and a few years later are making money off of what you have drafted, there should be some questions asked.”

‘Cooking up new ideas’

The charter system concept is part of a continually evolving effort to change the direction of public education in Georgia. Republicans have sought to decentralize, incentivize, and even privatize education, with political camps vying to gain funding and backing for their vision of reform.

Some conservatives consider traditional school groups at the statehouse to be advocates for a failed status quo and see them as opponents of reform. But Capitol veterans have seen waves of education reform come and go, changing every time a new party, or new leaders, take over.

Thanks to Cagle and Weber, Georgia is the only state in the nation that has taken the charter school model to the district level. Charter systems follow the charter school model, the cornerstones of which are parental involvement, school autonomy and flexibility in exchange for measurable improvements in student achievement. For instance, in exchange for greater freedoms, systems might promise to raise graduation rates to 90 percent in five years.

Districts have been steered toward becoming charter systems with offers of extra funding at a time when money is increasingly hard to come by for districts. Supporters say it is a small price to pay for the chance to fundamentally change education.

Last month Cagle’s Senate increased the amount of additional money flowing to charter systems when lawmakers approved the state budget for the upcoming year. Senate officials said the $10 million in additional funding merely followed the formula written into state law for the charter systems by legislators.

Fulton County is by far the largest charter system. Most are small and rural, although city systems in Decatur, Marietta and Gainesville are also charter systems.

Fulton Superintendent Robert Avossa said he has made a commitment to his board to send the extra money his system is receiving to schools in the form of “innovation grants.”

“We are going to let schools cooking up new ideas have some money to do something with,” he said.

‘He was very passionate’

Weber said he talked with Cagle and charter systems superintendents last year about forming a foundation to support the concept, through lobbying, by helping more districts join the effort, and by raising money from private organizations and government grants.

Cagle liked the idea, and so did the superintendents, some of whom recommended Weber become the foundation’s executive director.

Avossa said Weber is the right man for the job.

“What you want to do is have an individual who is very passionate about the work, somebody who truly believes something,” he said. “It was very clear when I first met him he was very passionate.”

Weber applied to become a member of the DeKalb County school board last month after Gov. Nathan Deal booted six members from the panel. He said he wanted DeKalb County to consider becoming a charter system but later withdrew as a candidate, saying there was a potential conflict of interest with his foundation post and that there were other good candidates.

Late last year and earlier in 2013, Weber traveled to school board meetings, seeking funding commitments for the foundation, which he registered with the Secretary of State’s Office in February.

Some boards and superintendents quickly signed on. Some supported the concept, but decided against paying dues.

“During these very difficult budget times our school system has made the decision to keep our funds dedicated closest to the classroom as possible,” said Barrow County Superintendent Wanda Creel. “Our board is having a hard time justifying the expenditure.”

‘Makes no sense to me’

Some noted that they already pay fees to belong to the Georgia School Boards Association, which lobbies on behalf of public schools. GSBA sets a cap on fees. The largest system in the state, Gwinnett, pays just over $15,000 a year to belong.

Fulton County agreed to join Weber’s foundation, chipping in $25,000 and some in-kind services, rather than the $2 per student. At $2 per student, Fulton would have had to pay $180,000 a year to belong.

Weber said at last count, the foundation had about $90,000 in the bank, although that figure could swell as more systems become charters and join his group.

Some state officials question why schools need more publicly funded lobbyists. Some large systems, like Gwinnett, have their own lobbyist at the Capitol. School boards, school superintendents, charter schools, and even private charter school organizations and companies have lobbyists at the Capitol. Some groups get public funding, some don’t.

“Why do they need a charter system association?” Harbin asked. “That makes no sense to me. Are they going to be like other public school (groups) up here begging us for more money every year?”

Bittner of the Marietta board said he supports the foundation’s work. But he said some of his constituents might not, so their property tax money shouldn’t go toward the foundation.

“I have a problem with allocating taxpayer funds to a private nonprofit,” he said. “This is a private lobbying arm for charter systems.”