Today’s Courier Herald Column:
The Georgia House passed a bill yesterday allowing a constitutional amendment which would allow increased state and local funding for state charter schools. The effort is in response to a Georgia Supreme Court decision last year which found the way Georgia’s state sponsored charter schools were funded was unconstitutional. The bill will now move to the Georgia Senate, and if passed, will be put in front of voters on the November election ballot.
Because the bill is for a constitutional amendment, a two-thirds majority was required for passage. An earlier attempt to pass the bill fell 10 votes short, as Democrats voted against the bill in large measure. After some changes in language to protect local school systems, the revised bill passed the house with three votes to spare, 123-48.
Senate Democrats are publicly saying that the bill will meet stiff opposition, despite the changes made in the House. They are electing for a caucus position against the bill, despite individual members strongly supporting the measure. Senator Vincent Fort told the AJC that the changes made in the House were only “window dressing”.
As such, Democrats are continuing to develop and demonstrate an active strategy of how they intend to maintain relevant in the face of their declining numbers. It remains to be seen if the opposition to the charter schools amendment represents a stand on principle or blocking a measure badly wanted by Republican leadership in the hopes of using their potential support as a bargaining chip.
To bargain, however, Democrats must also have something in the bag which they want, that would ultimately be acceptable to Republicans in some number. Changes to the HOPE scholarship formula, including instituting an income cap for parents of those who qualify for HOPE, as well as a more diverse distribution of Zell Miller scholarships seem to top that list.
Democrats saw their first attempt to unite behind a HOPE policy counter to Republican plans gain some traction last year, when Senate Democrats provided a respectable speed bump to a new Governor’s plan which saw virtually no opposition in the House. They presented a counter-proposal with maps demonstrating that many Republican Senators would have almost no constituents affected by HOPE changes if they adopted their plan. Ultimately, Governor Deal’s plan became law, but Senate Democrats believe they found an issue.
This year, they have facts and figures demonstrating that out of the 10,000 students who earn the full tuition Zell Miller Scholarship, only 400 are African American. By contrast, they also emphasize that more than half of these students come from the five counties that contain Atlanta’s affluent suburbs. It is clear that tapping into populist sentiment and using income to differentiate rural Georgians from those living near Atlanta is one of the path’s Georgia Democrats plan to use to contrast their plans with that of the Republican majority.
Republicans counter that the scholarship is based on student achievement, and eliminating students who qualify from an academic scholarship because of the accomplishment of their parents does not incentivize all students to maximize their potential. There are also the issues of two parent households where one parent may make well over the Democrat’s proposed income cap. Even in two parent households, the student is usually not the decision maker as to how much the parents are willing to contribute to a college education.
Should the Democrats be hoping to trade reforms to the HOPE scholarship in exchange for releasing caucus members to vote for the charter schools amendment, they would need a vehicle on which to make that trade. Governor Deal has indicated he is not likely to look favorably on additional tweaks to the HOPE funding formula this year. As such, it’s not terribly likely that Senate leadership would attempt to advance a bill that would likely face a veto should it ever make it through the Senate and a reluctant House.
Most likely, the HOPE changes and charter school opposition are part of laying down markers for future battles. After the 2012 elections Republicans will likely have even stronger majorities courtesy of recent redistricting efforts.
Democrats, to have influence on the process and final legislation, will likely need to exploit differences within the Republican caucuses to achieve policy goals in the short term. If that is indeed their goal, the differences on HOPE and charter schools are a good dry run to for them to see what their future path will look like.