Today’s Courier Herald Column:
The issue of funding for state sponsored charter schools is moving front and center at the capitol this week. An attempt to restore local funding to schools chartered by the state is slowly beginning to move through the general assembly in the form of a constitutional amendment.
The Georgia Supreme Court struck down the previous law requiring contributions from local school boards to state sponsored charter schools, claiming it violated the Georgia Constitution’s provision providing local governments with ultimate control over decisions regarding K-12 education. Given that the schools were chartered by the state and not local school boards, the court ruled that the state had no right to require local systems to provide the local contribution the student’s school would have received had they attended the local non-charter school.
State charter schools have been one of the most broadly supported school choice options, often crossing party lines in uniting suburban Republicans with inner city Democrats. Yet institutional resistance remains from the education community, pressuring lawmakers to vote against moving the amendment to voters on the November ballot.
Lawmakers at the capitol speak of getting phone calls from their local school board members in opposition of the amendment. They argue that they are the people elected to determine education policy and funding as a matter of local control. Allowing the state to charter a school in their community and then require it to be funded is moving control to Atlanta and away from voters.
Charter school advocates counter that you cannot get more local than groups of parents who are making the best decisions on how to educate their children, and if they believe there are better options than those provided by the local school board, then they should be supported with not just state funds but their local component as well.
The Professional Association of Georgia Educators, an association which represents many Georgia teachers and administrators, is actively opposing any amendment that allows funding to move to charter schools, and claims on their website that the version of the bill which has passed the House Education Committee “despite the objection of every major organization representation public education in Georgia”.
The significance is this is that in many parts of the state, the local board of education is the county’s largest employer. A motivated group of public school employees against the amendment could easily persuade the number of no votes needed to block passage of a constitutional amendment. Amendments must receive two-thirds of both the House and the Senate to move on to voters.
Another group forming to oppose the charter school amendment appears to be the Senate Democratic caucus, which appears to be taking an official “caucus position” against the measure. This would indicate they have agreed as a group to vote against the measure, which would deny passage even if every Republican voted in favor.
It’s not clear at this time if this opposition is real, or if it is temporary opposition to gain leverage on another issue, as several of their Democratic counterparts in the House openly support the measure. The Senate Democrats have been articulating a policy agenda which includes re-opening the HOPE scholarship formula and significant ethics reform. It’s also widely known that various members of the Senate, including Majority Leader Chip Rogers, are outspoken supporters of school choice options.
The question of the day for Senate Democrats is are they really opposed to the charter school funding proposal, or do they just want to keep Rogers and other Republicans from getting what they want until they are offered something they want in return. That, after all, is politics in its most basic form.
In the interim, state sponsored charter schools will continue to operate on shoestring budgets without access to local funds, and in many cases with overt opposition from local school boards. Yet many examples of school success – especially those of students coming from economically challenged backgrounds – are coming from these same schools.
Those who choose to play politics with this issue should look at facts of performance and of per pupil expenditures when deciding if charter schools are worthy of local funds. Georgia has long sought solutions for the state’s abysmal public school performance statistics. Politics designed to protect the status quo should not be employed to protect an underperforming system.