We don’t oppose charter schools, but we do urge voters to say “No” to the proposed amendment to Georgia’s Constitution that would create a legal way for the state to circumvent local school boards to create and fund charter schools.
While we have some concerns about the implications to local decision-making when it comes to schools, the strongest argument against Amendment One is simply that the state can’t afford it.
Given that Georgia’s existing public schools are so pitifully underfunded, we find it unconscionable to ask voters to divert precious tax dollars to benefit a relative few.
So-called “austerity cuts” and other reductions have sliced away state support for K-12 education for a decade. Georgia Department of Education figures put the total funding formula shortfall at $5.7 billion.
Yet big numbers make for sterile statistics. What do years of state cuts in support look like? They meant 2 of 3 Georgia districts cut school days. In the 2011-2012 school year, Chattooga County students were in class only 144 days, a full 36 days shy of the 180-day benchmark. Three other of Georgia’s 180 public school districts likewise fell short of even 150 days of class time.
And while many pupils statewide were in school fewer days, there were fewer teachers to go around, too. The number of teacher contracts in Georgia public schools has dropped by 8,500 since the 2008-2009 school year, even as the number of students increased, according to a new report by the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute. A predictable result is that class sizes grew, and some programs have been reduced or dropped altogether.
Amendment supporters argue that per-pupil education spending is actually up in Georgia in recent years. Yet, the cited increases have been more than negated by inflation’s fiscal bite.
Such an intolerably inadequate situation damages the schools charged with educating 9 of 10 Georgia children. It makes a mockery of the state constitution’s plain requirement that, “The provision of an adequate public education for the citizens shall be a primary obligation of the State of Georgia.”
It’s against this beyond-bare-bones funding that state lawmakers are asking voters to constitutionally empower an appointed commission to approve state-chartered schools that would, somehow, be financed by the same cash-strapped government.
It’s no wonder then, and to his great credit nevertheless, that State School Superintendent John Barge bucked the state’s leadership in opposing the charter schools amendment. In a letter, Barge wrote that, “I fully support charter schools, but I do not believe we should divert scarce state dollars to create a new government agency when our schools are suffering.” We couldn’t agree more.
The fact that the state’s signature education initiative at this point in time is opposed by the Republican elected official in charge of statewide K-12 public schooling is a big point for voters to remember Tuesday. Unlike many lawmakers who’re backing Amendment One, Barge is a career educator who’s seen schools from the inside out, and from the classroom up. His counsel seems wise and prudent on this issue.
Voters should also remember that this election is not about charter schools as a concept. Not when most of the 110 charters in Georgia operate under the umbrella of local school districts. As Barge put it, “I want the citizens of Georgia to know that our local school districts are receiving and approving high quality charter applications to serve Georgia’s students.”
That’s held true locally. Thirteen charters operate in DeKalb County. The district’s website even notes that two unused schools in DeKalb “are available for use by start-up charter schools.” Atlanta Public Schools likewise rosters 13 charter schools approved by the district.
And when local districts have denied charter proposals, their reasoning often was apparently sound. The old state charter commission itself declined 76 percent of applications that had previously been turned down by local districts.
Georgia thus doesn’t seem to need the big-foot authority of an appointed state high commission that could overrule the intent of locally elected school boards.
All of which is not to discount the often-valid public sentiment driving the charter schools movement. Innovative charter schools can be a valuable tactic in the quest for educational improvement, but they are not the entire answer.
Too many of Georgia’s 1.63 million public school students are stuck in inadequate, or even failing schools. That’s an unacceptable situation. We need better results for all kids, not just those whose parents are motivated enough to seek out the charter option.
Andre Jackson, for the Editorial Board