Poll shows tight race for charter schools amendment

By a slim margin, likely voters support a constitutional amendment that would create a commission to consider charter school applications, a poll conducted for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution shows.

The proposed amendment has the support of 45 percent of likely voters, with 42 percent opposed to it. Another 13 percent told pollsters they don’t know about the amendment or offered no answer. The poll, taken this week, has a margin of error of 5.3 percentage points.

Polls conducted for supporters of the amendment show it has more support than what the AJC found. A poll conducted for opponents show that a small majority of voters would vote against changing the constitution.

Jack Dillard, an 83-year-old retired independent wholesaler, said he doesn’t like the idea of changing the state constitution.

“Any time you’ve got a bunch of changes coming up, it usually winds up being bad,” he said.

Dee Dee Cousar, a 74-year-old retiree in Atlanta, said she wants to learn more about the amendment but is leaning toward voting for it.

Describing the schools in Atlanta as “terrible,” Cousar said, “I’d love to see them make some positive changes.”

In addition to providing a snapshot of where voters stand on the charter school amendment question, the AJC poll provides insight into how public schools are viewed across Georgia.

There, the picture is blurry. A small majority of registered and likely voters — 51 percent and 52 percent, respectively — rate the job public schools are doing in their community as excellent or good.

School performance was rated as not good or poor by 46 percent of registered and likely voters.

Dissatisfaction with traditional public schools has been a major driver in the push for charter schools, which are public schools that are granted flexibility as they pursue specific education goals laid out in their agreement with the state or local school board.

Though the charter school issue itself involves control and money, the debate over differing poll results has centered on the wording of the amendment polling questions. Indeed, the wording of the ballot language has come under scrutiny from both sides.

Opponents say the ballot language, which asks voters if the constitution should be amended “to allow state or local approval of public charter schools upon the request of local communities,” is misleading because the state and local school boards can already approve charter applications.

Bert Brantley, a spokesman for Families for Better Public Schools, a nonprofit group that supports the amendment, said its polling has used the ballot language because that’s what voters will read when they enter the voting booth. He said the AJC would have found more support for the amendment if it had used the ballot language in its poll question.

The AJC asked voters: “Shall the state of Georgia have a special state commission that has the authority to approve charter schools that have not been approved by local school districts?”

Brantley said many Republicans could interpret that wording as asking if they want to expand government, something many in the GOP oppose.

Charter schools in general typically have solid support from Republicans, but 47 percent of Republicans answered “no” to the polling question the AJC asked while 45 percent answered “yes.” Democrats favored the amendment, with 47 percent answering “yes” to the AJC poll question and 39 percent answering “no.”

Supporters of the amendment see its passage as a way to make sure the state can continue to approve charter schools, which they describe as alternatives for parents whose children attend failing traditional public schools. Opponents counter that the amendment will lead to more charter schools and less money for traditional public schools. They also say local school boards, not an unelected commission of appointees, should remain the primary place where charter school applications are considered.

“Voters are catching on,” said Jane Langley, campaign manager for VoteSmartGeorgia.com, which opposes the amendment. “It is not about charter schools, families or choice.”

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