By Victor Skinner
ATLANTA – There is a raging battle in Georgia between the public school establishment and education reformers who want to expand opportunities for independent charter school operators.
On Nov. 6, Georgia voters will cast their ballots on Amendment 1 – a proposal to give a state Charter School Commission authority to review and approve applications for new charter schools if local school boards reject the initial application.
It’s a significant issue in Georgia and numerous other states that grant local school boards the authority to approve or deny new charter schools that operate within their districts. The current situation puts independent charter schools at a significant disadvantage because local school officials have a vested interest in maintaining a monopoly on state funding by limiting competition for students.
Local school boards have a natural tendency to say “no” to new charter schools.
“It’s like saying to McDonald’s ‘Can we open a Wendy’s down the street?’” Virginia Galloway, Georgia director for Americans for Prosperity, told EAGnews.
“It’s such a complex issue because of the different types of charter (schools), but this is really about start-up charters that are independent of the local school system,” Galloway said. “I think there will be more charters approved … than if (Amendment 1) is not approved.
“If (Amendment 1) is not approved, I think it will really put a chill on all education reform in the state of Georgia.”
The fight is a classic case of education reformers versus the K-12 establishment.
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Opponents include State Superintendent John Barge, the Georgia School Boards Association, the Georgia School Superintendents Association, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and the state’s teachers associations – the Georgia Federation of Teachers, the Georgia Association of Educators and the Professional Association of Georgia Educators.
Those in favor of the amendment generally include school choice groups, the majority of the state’s legislators, the Families for Better Public Schools campaign, Americans for Prosperity, Gov. Nathan Deal, the Georgia Charter Schools Association and the general public.
A poll of 1,331 likely voters conducted in September shows 50 percent plan to vote for the amendment, 25 percent plan to vote against it, and a quarter remain undecided, according to Ballotpedia.com.
If those numbers hold up, the future could still be bright for school choice in Georgia.
Background of the battle
Mark Peevy, executive director for Families for Better Public Schools, said Georgia, like many other states, gives local public school boards the authority to approve or deny all charter school applications in their districts.
Those public school officials have routinely rejected applications, especially from independent charter school operators, over concerns that students will leave the public school system and take their state education funding with them. The fear of competition from independent charter schools is essentially driving public school leaders to lock out new schools not already affiliated with the public school system.
“In 2007, across Georgia there were 26 of 26 local charter school petitions turned down by local boards of education,” Peevy said.
The gridlock prompted lawmakers to develop a Georgia Charter Schools Commission to review rejected applications and approve new schools over the self-interested objections of local school boards when appropriate. The commission went into effect in 2008, with Peevy serving as executive director, and proceeded to approve a handful of charter school start-ups until the education establishment challenged the authority of the public body in 2011.
“During that time frame, the Charter School Commission … looked at 82 petitions, all of which had been turned down by the local boards of education, and approved 16 of those schools,” Peevy said.
But a lawsuit was filed challenging the authority of the Charter School Commission, and the Georgia Supreme Court ruled in May 2011 that local school boards have the “exclusive authority” to approve charter school applications, essentially nullifying the commission’s decisions.
In a long and odd decision, the court noted that its ruling is limited to the commission, and indicated that the state school board could continue to approve applications rejected by local school boards, which it has. But the ruling also warned that the court would be forced to take away the state board’s authority as well if the education establishment challenged the issue in court.
The ruling left the state board of education in an awkward situation, vulnerable to lawsuits from the public education establishment that could quickly unravel its flimsy authority to approve charter school applications upon appeal.
“The opposition is already talking openly about a lawsuit to shut that down,” Peevy said. “If this amendment is defeated, the lawsuit would try to take away the state board’s authority to authorize charters.”
The volatile situation prompted state lawmakers and Gov. Nathan Deal to take action. They crafted legislation to re-establish the Charter School Commission and write the commission’s authority to approve new charter schools into the state’s constitution. A bill that enables funding for state charter schools was signed by Deal in May, and will also take effect if Amendment 1 is approved Nov. 6, Ballotpedia.com reports.
“Amendment 1 required a two-thirds vote in both the House and Senate to even get on the ballot, which is a remarkable step in and of itself,” Peevy said.
“In essence, it’s about control and money from (the public school establishment’s) standpoint,” Peevy said. “They want all of the control and none of the money to go anywhere else.”
Amendment 1 “only provides a fair appeals process at the state level if charter petitions don’t get a fair review at the local level,” he said.
For Georgia’s education reformers, however, Amendment 1 is about a lot more than money, Galloway said.
Opponents are “what I would call the defenders of the status-quo – a status-quo that is … failing students in Georgia,” she said.
“My concern is not with protecting anyone’s turf, but with the students that are stuck in failing schools.”
Georgia’s education establishment is fighting hard to frame the debate as one about local control, arguing that a state commission with the ability to override objections of locally elected officials has no place in the constitution.
The “defenders of the status-quo” argue that the amendment is a special interest power grab that will cost public schools billions. They contend the state already has plenty of charter schools, but they don’t explain that many of them are run by the same school officials who run failing traditional schools.
At issue in the coming election are independent charter schools, which operate outside the authority of local school boards and have their own administrative staffs.
“This amendment is not about charters, achievement, or parental choice,” the Georgia Federation of Teachers writes in a recent editorial. “It is about giving five people (charter school commission) who will only be accountable to the governor free rein, unprecedented control and power over billions of tax dollars.
“And it’s about big profits for private interests on the backs of our children and at the expense of Georgia’s taxpayers.”
The assertion that lawmakers and education reformers want to sell out the state’s school children is, of course, preposterous. And that’s been a common theme in the opposition’s campaign to mislead the public about the intentions of the constitutional amendment.
“They’re telling teachers and their staffs they’ll lose their jobs, their class sizes will get bigger, the sky is green,” Peevy said. “When we actually get down and discuss the issue their hyperbole drops to the wayside and people begin to understand” that the measure is focused on providing quality educational options for Georgia’s families.
But the truth hasn’t stopped school officials from using taxpayer funds to promote their self-serving positions.
Multiple lawsuits are pending against local school boards and superintendents who are allegedly using their public positions to fight against Amendment 1.
State Superintendent John Barge, a Republican, is among the most high-profile offenders. The superintendent had published his personal political position against the amendment on the state Department of Education’s website until the Georgia attorney general advised him take it down, which he did.
Barge, however, continues to campaign against Amendment 1, despite his affiliation with the Republican Party, which generally favors the measure.
“The state superintendent was for (Amendment 1) before he was against it,” Peevy said. “He changed his mind and … decided to take the position that lines him up with the rest of the education establishment.”
In some areas, school employees are reportedly using taxpayer funds and work time to campaign against Amendment 1, possibly violating state law.
“I had a lady come to me … who substitute teaches who said when she walked in to teach the GAE was serving donuts and telling teachers to vote no and to tell their students to vote no,” Galloway said.
Opponents also “had an hour-long training session at the Georgia School Boards Association, which is a taxpayer funded training session … on how to defeat the amendment,” she said.
Reports involving students are even more troubling.
Kelly Cadman, vice president of school services for the Georgia Charter Schools Association, said public school teachers have recruited students to deliver campaign signs opposing Amendment 1 during class time.
“A teacher at Brighten (charter school) called me tonight to let me know that her son, who is in the IB program at the local high school, was sent on an errand … by one of his teachers,” Cadman wrote in a recent email to fellow education reformers. “The errand (during his language arts class time) was to deliver several Vote No yard signs to other teachers.
“He didn’t find out what the signs were about (didn’t know what Amendment 1 was) until he got to the last teacher and she told him – the kid was aghast, as he knows this impacts his mom,” Cadman wrote. “Obviously, his mom (the charter school teacher) is furious.”
But those are the lengths that status quo defenders will go to in order to protect their own interests and the system that cuts their checks. It doesn’t matter to them whether children will be better off with options outside of the government school system.
And as Nov. 6 election inches closer, the education establishment is showing no signs of slowing down.
This week, Amendment 1 opponents filed a lawsuit against Gov. Deal, Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle and Secretary of State Brian Kemp – the authors of the ballot question – because they contend it misleads voters.
The question asks: “Shall the Constitution of Georgia be amended to allow state or local approval of public charter schools upon the request of local communities?”
Two plaintiffs – the Rev. Timothy McDonald of the First Iconium Baptist Church in Atlanta and Beverly Hedges – described by the Atlanta Journal Constitution as someone “who has 22 years of education experience” – are asking the Fulton County Superior Court to ignore the constitutional amendment even if it’s approved by voters.
It’s obvious that charter school opponents are desperate to win this election and keep children trapped in neighborhood schools. In the end voters will have to decide whether school choice is healthy for the children of their state, or something they can live without.