Charter school debate ramps up

Now that TSPLOST has gone splat, political attention has shifted to a new pitched battle: whether the Georgia constitution should be amended to guarantee the state's power to authorize and fund charter schools.

Georgia voters will be able to make that call when they go to the polls in November. The debate has served as a proxy fight of sorts about the nature of school choice. There are those who think charter schools are a critical alternative for parents whose children attend struggling traditional public schools and think the state should aggressively grow them. And then there are those who those who may back charter schools in general but think they should be approved and overseen at the local school district level.

The intensity of the debate would make it seem that charter schools, which are public schools, will go away if voters reject the constitutional amendment. Except, they won't.

Local school districts will still be able to consider charter applications.

Amendment backers, however, fear that without a stamp of approval from voters this fall, the state's power to authorize and fund charter schools could come under legal threat. They point to a 2011 Georgia Supreme Court decision as proof. It stripped the Georgia Charter Schools Commission of the authority to approve charter schools. Local school boards, not the state, have the constitutional authority to oversee K-12 education, the court ruled.

Before and after the ruling, the state Board of Education has approved charter applications, and charter school proponents fear that, without passage of the amendment, that power would be challenged next.

"All opponents will have to do is go back to the court and say, 'The state is in contempt of court,' 'They're not following your directions,' 'They're still violating the constitution,'" said Tony Roberts, president and chief executive officer of the Georgia Charter Schools Association. "They haven't filed suit yet, but if past history is any indication, they will."

While the legal underpinnings of the charter school movement in Georgia could be strengthened by voters this fall, pro-charter state legislators have already bolstered its financial pilings.

A little-noticed -- at the time -- change in charter schools legislation opened up a new funding source for charter schools that are approved at the state level. That source — supplemental, state taxpayer money — will go to state-approved schools no matter what voters decide this fall.

Some charter schools could get as much as two and a half times the amount of state funding traditional public schools receive, an analysis by the Georgia Department of Education has determined.

Every nickel charter schools get from the state is one that isn't going to traditional public schools, amendment opponents argue. Georgia spends $1 billion less on schools than it did in 2009.

"We believe that a state that cannot properly fund its public schools has no business establishing and funding a parallel system of charter schools," said Tim Callahan, communications director for the Professional Association of Georgia Educators. "... When you allocate more money for one area, it must be taken from another."

How charters are approved

Understanding how that supplemental funding fits into the total financial picture requires some understanding of how charters are approved and funded in Georgia.

Charter school applicants must first apply for approval from the district where the school would be located. If they are approved, they receive federal funds, state funds and local property tax money.

If the local district rejects the charter application, the applicant can turn to the state Board of Education. Before July 1, when new legislation took effect, charter schools authorized by the state would not get local property tax money.

The new law, however, gives state-approved charters additional money. The goal was to bring them to financial parity with traditional public schools and with charter schools that receive local property tax funding.

Natilee Brown-Van, principal at Heritage Preparatory Charter School in southwest Atlanta, said the funding will be a financial lifeline for a schools like hers, which was denied a charter at the district level and receives no local property tax funds.

"That's a help tremendously," Brown-Van said of the supplemental funding.

For the charter school model to thrive, Brown-Van said, the proposed amendment needs to be approved.

Elizabeth Hooper, the parent of a public high school student in Alpharetta, said amendment backers are not spelling out what specific problems in traditional public schools charter schools are supposed to fix.

"If you don't clearly define the problem, you don't clearly define the solution," Hooper said.

Hooper is among those who say the actual ballot question — "Shall the Constitution of Georgia be amended to allow state or local approval of public charter schools upon the request of local communities?" — is misleading because it gives the impression that the state is not currently approving charter applications.

"I don't like being misled," Hooper said.

Political parties divided

The charter schools debate is another point of division between Democrats, who largely oppose the amendment, and Republicans, who tend to favor it. Georgia Schools Superintendent John Barge, a Republican, has not taken a public position on the issue, saying that he will respect the decision of the voters.

The Democratic Party of Georgia, trying to highlight what it describes as the misleading nature of the ballot question, placed a non-binding question on its July 31 primary ballot.

"Should the Georgia Constitution be amended to allow the state to override locally-elected school boards' decisions when it comes to the creation of charter schools in your county or city?" the party asked.

Just over 56 percent of voters answered "no."

A pair of polls conducted for Families for Better Public Schools, a pro-charter schools group, has shown that 58 of voters support changing the constitution.

Eric Gray, communications director for the Democratic Party of Georgia, said that's because voters have not been given the facts. "We have found that once people realize these charter schools take money from the public school systems, their opinions change," Gray said.

The Democratic Party question "was worded in a way to have people say 'no' and yet 250,000 Democrats still voted to give parents more options," said Tim Melton, vice president of legislative affairs for StudentsFirst, a California-based education group that backs passage of the Georgia amendment.

"I think the handwriting is on the wall," Melton said, predicting passage of the amendment in November.

What's at stake

In 2011, the Georgia Supreme Court determined that it was unconstitutional for the Georgia Charter Schools Commission to authorize and fund charter schools. Local school districts have the sole authority to start and fund public schools.

Voters will have a chance to change the state's constitution.

They'll be asked: "Shall the Constitution of Georgia be amended to allow state or local approval of public charter schools upon the request of local communities?"

A "yes" vote means: the Georgia Charter Schools Commission, which had approved 16 of 83 state charter applications before it was disbanded, will be re-established. The commission, the state Board of Education and local school districts will all have the authority to approve charter school applications. Those who advocate a"yes" vote say it would protect the growth of charter schools from legal challenge and local school districts reluctant to approve them.

A "no" vote means: The Supreme Court ruling stands and the state's role in approving charter schools will be limited. Those who advocate a "no" vote argue it would leave the decision making on charter schools in local hands and would protect the funding of already cash-strapped public schools.

About charter schools

  • A charter school is a public school that has been given organizational and curriculum flexibility to meet state education expectations.
  • Georgia has 162 charter schools
  • About 6 percent — or 96,000 — of the state's 1.6 million students attend charters

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