Ga. Charter Supporters, Foes Clash Over Need For Constitutional Amendment

Eighteen months ago, the Georgia Supreme Court overturned the state’s charter school commission, declaring that only local school districts may decide who can open schools in their communities. That decision set off a statewide debate and legislative struggle that will culminate on November 6. That’s when voters will decide whether to re-create the commission through a constitutional amendment.

Today we begin a three-part series diving deep into the questions surrounding how the amendment would change Georgia’s public school system. In the first installment, we examine the opposing claims about whether or not the amendment is necessary. For more of our coverage of the charter school amendment, click here

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Charter school parents and students rally to encourage voters to approve a constitutional amendment that will expand the state’s power to open charter schools over the objections of local school boards. Photo by Maura Walz.

ATLANTA — With just over a week until Election Day, charter school parents and supporters rally at Heritage Preparatory Charter School to encourage voters to support Amendment 1. Cherokee County’s Kelly Marlow tells the crowd her story.

“Just like you, I wanted something special for my children,” Marlow says. “And I stand before you not just as a parent but as a school board member-elect.”

Marlow’s children go to Cherokee Charter Academy, which was opened by the now-defunct state charter commission after having been repeatedly turned down by the local board. Marlow says the board’s hostility to the school convinced her both to run for school board and to support Amendment 1.

“I’ll tell you, what lit the fire under me was when one of the Cherokee school board members said that parents have a choice – they can move out of the county,” she says.

In some ways, Marlow’s story is an example of how opponents of Amendment 1 say the system should work – if a community wants a charter school, they’ll elect local school board members who will approve them.

But Marlow doesn’t see it that way. She says it’s important that charter applicants go to their local boards first. “However, you still have some deeply, deeply entrenched bureaucracy that has a vested interest in saying no,” she says. “And so we need a checks and balances system. We need an appeals process.”

There’s little research evidence that speaks to whether an appeals process for charter applications results in stronger schools, but national charter school advocates back Marlow up. Nina Rees, president of the National Association of Public Charter Schools, says there’s a reason more than 30 states have adopted independent state charter school authorizers in addition to their local district approval process.

“By and large, school districts are not the most innovative authorizers,” Rees says. “That’s partly because they have a vested interest in making sure that students attend their own schools.”

“I don’t think [that]  holds a lot of water at all,” says Valarie Wilson, a member of the school board of the city of Decatur and the president of the Georgia School Boards Association. “School boards know that if they deny a charter they have to have a good reason for denying a charter.”

And many opponents of Amendment 1 say they support the expansion of school choice in Georgia generally; but they believe that local elected school boards are best equipped to make those decisions for their communities.

“I fully support strong, quality charter schools,” says State School Superintendent John Barge, one of the amendment’s most prominent opponents. “We have over 100 of them in the state of Georgia, and the overwhelming majority of them are approved by local boards of education.”

But Amendment 1’s supporters say they’re concerned about the choices available to families who don’t live in areas with charter-friendly boards.

“We’ve got 159 counties in Georgia; only nine of them have independent, start-up charter schools,” says Mark Peevy, who was head of the state charter commission that the Supreme Court overturned last year. “And so there is a vast swathe of Georgians who don’t have these options available to them.”

During the former state charter schools commission’s two years of operation from 2009 to 2011, more than 60 schools whose applications had been rejected by their local boards appealed to the commission. Of those schools, the commission chose to approve just 17 of the schools.

Opponents of the commission point to that small number of approvals as evidence that school districts generally do a good job judging high-quality charter applications and rejecting poor-quality ones. But supporters say that the fact that most of the 14 commission-approved schools that eventually opened provided the only public school alternatives in their communities proves that the commission expanded educational opportunity for students.

If districts do reject quality charter applications, Barge and other opponents of the amendment say an appeals process is already in place.

Barge explains that if a charter application is denied, the system is currently set up so the school can appeal to the state Department of Education.

“And if our charter division reviews that application and we deem that it’s a quality charter application, at that point I have authority by law to mediate between that applicant and that school district,” Barge says. “If no ground is made, the state board can still approve that charter school as a state special charter school.”

But Peevy argues it’s just a matter of time before the BOE’s current power is challenged legally. He says the Court’s decision last year opened the way.

“[The decision] gave exclusive authority for K-12 education to local school boards. That in and of itself challenges the state’s ability to approve schools,” Peevy says. “And so it would be extremely naïve to think that court case is not coming if this amendment doesn’t pass.”

Tom Cox, an attorney at Carlock, Copeland and Stair who represented the group of school districts in their successful attempt to overturn the state charter commission last year, acknowledges there was some ambiguity in the Court’s decision. But he believes a legal challenge to the state’s chartering power is unlikely.

“Let’s just say that no one has challenged them up until now, and they’ve been around for quite a few years,” he says. “No one stepped forward to challenge them after the Supreme Court decision.”

The amendment’s proponents respond that just because no one has challenged the state’s chartering power doesn’t mean no one will, and that will further close of the opportunities for parents looking for public school options outside of their traditional schools.

Tomorrow, we’ll look at the debate over how a new state charter school commission would be funded, and whether that might affect traditional public schools.

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