How Will A State Charter School Commission Affect Public School Funding?

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.

In the second installment of our three part series on Amendment 1, we examine the debate over money. Some questions remain about where the money will come from remain unanswered.  For more of our coverage of the charter school amendment, click  here.

Scroll over the bars in the chart to see the exact amounts that state and local government contribute to per-pupil spending in each district. Source: Georgia Department of Education.

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ATLANTA — Floyd Fort, who is superintendent of Stewart County, one of Georgia’s poorest school districts, has a  metaphor he likes to use to describe the relationship between the state and local school districts:

“In a marriage, what do the two partners squabble about more than anything else?” he says. “Overwhelmingly, the answer is money. And  when people start squabbling over money, that gets them fighting among themselves.”

Georgia’s public schools have seen billions of dollars in state cuts over the past decade, and educators like Fort wonder why.

Instead of funding new charter schools, Decatur City school board member Valarie Wilson says the state should be restoring lost dollars to the schools it already has.

“We should be coming together as a state as parents and community members and business owners, quite honestly, in saying, ‘state, fund public education adequately,” Wilson says.

“I don’t believe that it is money that is going to fix this,” says Nina Gilbert, founder of Ivy Preparatory Charter School. “Money is necessary, but how we allocate those resources is also important.”

Gilbert and Wilson take opposite views on one of the central questions of this debate: should we try to improve education by increasing school funding? Or should we focus on trying new ways to get more bang out of the educational bucks we already spend?

If Amendment 1 passes, charter schools opened by the commission will receive roughly $7,400 per student in state funds. That figure is controversial for several reasons: it’s about $2,000 less than the statewide average amount spent in combined state and local funds for public schools in Georgia.

But it’s also roughly twice the amount of state dollars that school districts receive for each student. That’s prompted fears that the state is favoring students enrolled in charter schools and that state money sent to district schools, which has already been slashed in recent years, will be redirected to the state’s charter school fund.

Mark Peevy, who led the state’s previous charter school commission, says that since those schools are educating students who might otherwise be in traditional school systems, it represents a net savings for taxpayers and a move towards more financial efficiency in education.

“If you have 100 kids in a state-authorized charter school, those kids will be cheaper to educate than the corresponding 100 kids in a traditional public school district somewhere,” Peevy says.

That’s true for most of the state’s school districts. But about a third of the state’s districts spend less than what state commission charter schools will receive per student.

There’s also the question of how the state will budget for the new commission schools. Peevy says that the amendment will actually mean an increase in the state’s total investment in public education.  “It’s very clear, literally in the law, that local districts will not see a reduction in the current state-level funding that is coming their way,” he says.

But that leads to a big unknown: “The question that we continue to ask and that no one seems to be able to answer is, where will the money come from?” says Herb Garrett, president of the Georgia School Superintendent Association. “Will it come from Medicaid? Will it come from prisons? Will it come from public safety?”

The state legislature hasn’t decided yet exactly where the extra money for charter schools will come from, says State Senator Fran Millar, who helped shepherd the constitutional amendment through the legislature.

There’s a practical reason for that — no one knows how many new schools would open.

But Tom Cox, the lawyer who has represented school districts both in last year’s lawsuit against the state charter commission and in funding equity cases in the state, says the ambiguity makes him nervous.

“If one believes in the tooth fairy, then one believes that one can take $400 million out of the state’s budget, send it off to a new educational system and not have that reduce funding for the regular educational system,” Cox says.

And if more money can be found for education, Garrett wonders why it couldn’t have been found sooner. “And we’re just amazed that extra money can be found to fund that when we can’t fully fund the K-12 schools we already have,” he says.

Charter proponents such as Millar respond that these kinds of questions miss the point.

“I don’t think the world is going to end because of this particular constitutional amendment,” he says. “But I do believe that if people believe people ought to have options, and if they believe there’s ways to increase academic performance by looking at alternatives, then they’ll vote yes.”

Opponents argue just the opposite — that if it’s not clear that Amendment 1 will increase academic performance, and no one knows exactly how much its going to cost or where the money will come from, voters should just say no. Each side has exactly a week before election day to make its case to Georgia voters.

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