Georgia voters will be trying to wade through the rhetoric and politics to cast their votes on whether to support a new process for evaluating and approving applications for charter schools. We have seen a fast and furious attempt from parties on both sides of the issue to gain the advantage. We have seen deceptive ads, especially from the supporters of Amendment 1, that try to tap into voters’ emotions. So what should the voter know about and what should the voter do to inform him or herself about this topic?
First, what is the issue we are voting on? Here is the language of Amendment 1:
Provides for improving student achievement and parental involvement through more public charter school options.
House Resolution No. 1162 Ga. L. 2012, p. 1364
Shall the Constitution of Georgia be amended to allow state or local approval of public charter schools upon the request of local communities?
Currently, the authority for granting charters rests first with the local school district where the charter is being sought. Second, the Georgia Department of Education has to approve the charter application as well. This process has been used to create around 110 charter schools in Georgia. There are also about 15 state-approved charters that were authorized by the State Commission before it was struck down by the state Supreme Court as being unconstitutional. Many of these 125-plus charter schools are quite successful, while others of them have struggled to meet the demands of accountability that local and state governing bodies have put in place.
The state-supported commission to control and regulate charters in Georgia was struck down by the state Supreme Court in 2011 as being unconstitutional. Amendment 1 is a backdoor way of revisiting this issue and getting the voters to “reauthorize” the State Commission on charter schools.
The current process for granting a charter is through local school boards and the State Department of Education, so voters can exercise their opinions through elections for their local school board officials or the Governor of the state.
The proposed process in Amendment 1 makes way for an appointed state commission on charter schools. Members of the commission will be appointed by elected officials but answerable only to them. Applications will not be authorized through locally elected school boards. Therefore, the application review process is one-step removed from voter scrutiny. The Governor will have influence over appointing members of the State Charter Commission. I like the way Jay Bookman summarized his concerns in the article, Charter-School Amendment Would Set Off a Gold Rush.
My concern about Amendment 1 is that most of the heavy backers, both in the press and financially, are private corporations from outside the State of Georgia that see themselves benefiting from a process that uses a state commission rather than a two-tiered approach through local and state education boards. It seems to me the state commission process has fewer checks-and-balances in place to keep special interest lobbying efforts at arms length. These parties, many of them for-profit corporations running charter networks, will have a slightly unencumbered pathway to approval and easier access to government officials or commission members. We already see a plethora of problems surface in our state and federal governments when influence peddlers get access to government officials.
On the other hand, when the control is in the hands of local school boards there are valid concerns that charter applications are not widely encouraged, supported or evaluated fairly. The question that many people wonder about is: do local school boards really want competition from potentially high-quality charter schools that might siphon students and teachers from their ranks? Does the competition hurt local public schools because students leave, taking with them the tax dollars that support their attendance at a charter school? Also, there is concern that the charter schools don’t compete on a level playing field with their traditional public school neighbors. The charter school has more independence in the way it operates so long as it fulfills the goals it lays out in its charter and stays true to the process that governs its operation.
I find it very interesting that in all the political rhetoric around Amendment 1, there is almost no conversation about what is best for students in Georgia. There are excellent students, teachers, and administrators thriving in our traditional public schools. Do some of these schools need help? Yes! Georgia ranks 45th based on SAT scores. Georgia ranks 41st based on Morgan Quinto Smartest State (2006-2007). Georgia ranks 47th based on Averaged Freshman Graduation Rate for Public High School Students (see link for reference). So for me the issue isn’t whether we have more or less charter schools in Georgia and what process we use to authorize them. For me the issue is how do we improve public education in Georgia, and how do we do it with speed and fidelity? More charter schools will not solve this problem, especially if the charter schools are run by for-profit corporations that are more interested in padding the wallets of their stockholders than in the education of our young people. There is very little good data that suggests for-profit corporations do a far better job than our public schools in educating our youth.
We need to improve all public schools using tax dollars wisely. We need to train and hire high-quality teachers and pay them well if they maintain standards of excellence. We need to support families, offering them educational programs that help them parent and appropriately engage them in their child’s education. We need to build a strong sense of community in each of our public schools. Finally, we need to have a highly scrutinized and fair process for charter schools to come online and provide competition to our public schools. Competition is a good thing. It places demand on all schools to rise to higher standards being sure they are meeting all the needs of all their students.
We cannot allow misinformed advocates and deceptive ads to cloud our judgment on whether to support Amendment 1. People on each side of the argument want to win. Winning at what cost? Who has a better plan to pull Georgia up from being one of the lowest ranked states in public education, which includes our charters? We need to encourage and challenge our elected officials to allow more respected, high-quality educators to sit at the table sharing their voice in how we improve education for our children.
As an educator, I have more faith in my colleagues changing the course of education in Georgia than I do in for-profit corporations or appointed state commissions. I would rather invest in more local control over how education is distributed in my community. However, I do strongly believe that local officials and school boards have to facilitate the development of “enterprise zones” that include a mix of different types of high-quality schools. Public, charter, and independent schools all have a role to play and can be partners in this work. Competition is healthy so long as we keep our eye on the prize, a great education for ALL students.