Sheila A. Marshall
While voters are being asked to determine whether the state Constitution should be amended with regard to the manner of establishment of charter schools, controversy reigns over whether the state should have this additional measure of authority to approve these new schools against the wishes of local officials.
As it stands now, local officials bear the initial responsibility for approving or disapproving applications for charter schools within their school district. If that application is not approved, an appeal can be made to the state Board of Education, which currently has the authority to overrule the decision of local officials and grant approval of the charter school.
According to Thomaston-Upson County School System Superintendent Maggie Shook,
should the referendum, which appears on the Nov. 6 general election ballot as Amendment 1, be approved, the Constitution will be amended to allow charter school applicants who are disapproved at the local level to appeal to the Charter School Commission, a state agency that was originally established in 2008, but was in May 2011 ruled unconstitutional by the Georgia Supreme Court.
“Speaking as an individual citizen and as a superintendent, I have nothing against charter schools. I think there’s a place for charter schools in the educational system, but there are already two agencies in Georgia that can approve them,” she said. “One is the local Board of Education and the second is the state School Board. This is not about whether one is for or against charter schools; it’s about creating another bureaucratic agency that – appointed by the governor at a cost of approximately $1 million a year – that will approve charter schools that will be run primarily by for-profit and/or out-of-state corporations.”
Gov. Nathan Deal’s Director of Communications Brian Robinson said the effort is not an attempt to circumvent the judicial branch, but rather a plan of action that is in Georgia children’s best interest.
“To Gov. Deal, this is giving children in greatest need an opportunity in life. That’s what this is about,” he said. “Charter schools are innovative; they’re successful. They cannot deny anyone admission if they live in that district. Now, there may be a waiting list, but they can’t be selective. In failing systems where the school board has refused to allow charter schools, this will allow another option.”
However, Robinson did acknowledge, “The proposed Charter School Commission will have authority over the schools, but would not manage them.”
Another crucial question that remains unanswered in the fight over the charter school referendum is how funding will be provided for what is expected to be a significant increase in the number of state charter schools that will established throughout Georgia.
Robinson said, “Every child in Georgia deserves a free education in a public school. There are schools that have failed generation after generation to educate children for parents whose children are trapped in failing schools, we need to be able to give them an option.”
He said opponents of the Constitutional amendment who argue that public schools will lose funding are defending a system that is broken, and that the argument is at its foundation false.
“The amendment expressly forbids any such thing – taking money away from public schools,” Robinson said.
Pressed further to respond to questions of whether state departments would experience budget cuts even deeper than the anticipated three percent in order to fund the new state school system that would be established if the amendment passes, Robinson finally conceded that funding local school districts currently receive for public school students would be diverted to the start-up charter schools.
“The money should follow the students. The money will follow the students,” he said.
In response to concerns that the loss of individual state student funding would require school systems to operate under greater budget deficits, Robinson said, “Well, they would also have one less student to educate.”
He explained that schools will not take a per capita reduction, but rather a direct deduction of funds to the local system, meaning that it would get just as much money per student, but funding for transferring students would go with the child to the state charter school.
“It’s just part of our education funding,” he said. “We don’t want to get caught up in how the bureaucracy feels about this.”
Dr. Shook said despite supporters’ claims, public school funding – which already fails to comply with state constitutional mandates – would be affected if the amendment were approved.
“This will create a dual education system in the state of Georgia. There are already options in place,” she said. “Until we can fully fund 180-day school years, not furlough teachers and adequately fund the public school system, I think it’s unfair that money will be taken out of state coffers for charter schools that will be funded at a higher rate than public schools, by a rate of two-to-one.”