Gov. Nathan Deal has worked hard to promote his proposed constitutional amendment to create an Opportunity School District that would take over failing schools. Curtis Compton /

It’s teachers union vs. the unknown in Georgia’s school amendment fight

The big-money campaign to defeat Gov. Nathan Deal’s proposed constitutional amendment allowing the state to take over failing schools is largely being bankrolled so far by the nation’s largest teachers union and its Georgia affiliate.

Who is funding the advertising push to pass the proposal on next month’s ballot — Amendment 1 — isn’t quite as clear. That’s because a big chunk of the money has come from a fund set up by Deal’s supporters in such a way that it doesn’t have to disclose its donors. The Atlanta Journal Constitution, however, was able to dig up some of the donors to the fund.

In all, about $3.3 million had been raised by the end of the filing quarter, Sept. 30, by groups hoping to pass or defeat the Opportunity School District proposal in a campaign that has become a very personal political war between Deal and public school educators.

“This is an amendment to the Constitution of Georgia that could change how we run schools in the future,” said Sid Chapman, the president of the Georgia Association of Educators, the local affiliate of the National Education Association. The NEA is the lead funder of the opposition campaign.

Amendment 1, if approved on Nov. 8, would enable an appointee of the governor to seize “chronically failing” schools and the local tax dollars that support them. Those schools would either be shuttered, run directly by a new statewide district or converted to charter schools under independent management.

Deal says passage will empower parents and teachers to “fix” bad schools and end an “inexcusable crisis” that has trapped more than 67,000 kids 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.

Teacher groups, the Parent Teacher Association and other opponents say Deal is simply 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.

Both sides have run advertising campaigns, with the backers calling their group Opportunity for All Georgia Students Inc., and opponents, the Committee to Keep Georgia Schools Local Inc.

Supporters have run TV ads featuring state Sen. Freddie Powell Sims, D-Albany, saying, “This is an opportunity to help those students that have been failing for decades. As dark music plays in the background, the ads of opponents call it a “takeover amendment” that will rob schools of money and put education in control of an unaccountable bureaucrat chosen by the governor.

The fund run by Deal supporters had raised $1.22 million as of Sept. 30 from four donors. The Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce kicked in $35,000 and AT&T an additional $25,000, according to campaign filings. Both are extremely active players at the statehouse.

50CAN, a Washington-based education policy group that supports more aggressive intervention in low-performing schools, contributed $310,000.

50CAN merged with national school choice champions StudentsFirst earlier this year. StudentsFirst contributed more than $1 million to state political races and funds in recent years, giving big money to Georgia Republicans and helping to bankroll a charter schools constitutional amendment campaign here in 2012.

StudentsFirst also paid for Deal and other officials to travel to New Orleans in 2015 to study a program similar to his Opportunity School District proposal.

A 50CAN website lists the Marcus Foundation, founded by Home Depot co-founder and philanthropist Bernie Marcus, as a donor to the Georgia affiliate. Marcus made a $250,000 contribution to the fund supporting the charter schools amendment in 2012.

Michael O’Sullivan, the executive director of 50CAN in Georgia, said his group has supported Deal’s Opportunity School District proposal since it was introduced. Putting money into the effort made sense.

“We wanted to make sure the truth was able to get out because the opposition was running TV ads aimed at misleading the public,” O’Sullivan said.

The biggest donor to the pro-OSD amendment this year — as of Sept. 30 — was Georgia Leads Inc., a fund set up to push Deal’s agenda. Georgia Leads had put $850,000 into Opportunity for All Georgia Students as of the end of September.

Georgia Leads was created as a nonprofit under the federal Internal Revenue Service tax codes that cover so-called “social welfare” organizations. The groups can participate in politics as long as that isn’t their primary focus. It does not have to disclose donors.

Such setups have mushroomed since the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision, which cleared the way for unions, businesses and others to raise unlimited amounts of money to use the designation.

While Georgia Leads doesn’t disclose donors, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution found more than $250,000 in contributions to the group by reviewing expenditure listings by companies and political action committees who file reports with the state ethics commission. All the donors have big stakes in legislation at the state Capitol, including AT&T, the retail store lobby, McGuireWoods (one of the best-connected lobbying firms at the Statehouse), Hospital Corporation of America, beer distributors and bank lobbyists.

Tom Willis, who has led Georgia Leads, is heading Opportunity for All Georgia Students, and he responded to a question about the campaign’s funding by going after the critics of the proposed amendment.

“Unfortunately, it is not surprising to see national unions spend millions in Georgia to protect the failing status quo where their control is left unchallenged,” he said. “Acting in accordance with all state and federal laws, we will continue to work tirelessly during the final weeks of this campaign to make sure every Georgia voter knows a ‘yes’ vote on Question 1 is a vote to ensure that every child in our state is given a chance at the education they deserve.”

Brinkley Serkedakis, the executive director of Common Cause Georgia, said funds such as Georgia Leads are popping up across the country and getting involved in major campaigns. “More often than not, they are created with the intent of shielding donors from the sunlight,” she said.

“This kind of behind-the-scenes politicking has serious consequences — it means that corporations and wealthy special interests have free rein to fill political coffers, all without leaving any fingerprints behind,” she added. “Georgians deserve to know who is lobbying and paying for efforts that seek to influence state policies.”

The fund paying for TV ads opposing the amendment has only listed the national teachers union and its Georgia affiliate as donors, although Chapman, the GAE’s president, said other individuals and groups are also supporting the effort.

The NEA’s funding has made the campaign financially competitive, something that wasn’t the case when the charter school amendment was before voters in 2012. In that campaign for an amendment that set up another pathway to create charter school, school choice advocates outspent critics of the measure 10-1.

Chapman disputed the notion that the NEA support amounts to out-of-state bankrolling of the campaign against Deal’s amendment. He noted that the 35,000 some Georgia educators who belong to the GAE pay dues to the NEA. The NEA, he said, is sending the money back to Georgia to fight the proposed amendment.

The association’s president said the amendment and the campaign backing it have misled the public, which is why his group’s efforts are so important. He said the amendment would allow private companies to get government funding to run low-performing schools, opening the door to taxpayer-funded privatization of education. That is something teacher groups have fought against for decades.

“It’s fundamentally against our philosophy of public education to take public money and give it to private entities to run schools,” he said. “It also undermines the control of local boards of education. It could fundamentally change public education into private education using public funds.”

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