To mark National School Choice Week, the Center for Education Reform has held daily webinars on choice issues. Today, the center’s director Jeanne Allen speculated on the future of choice in states, only mentioning Georgia in passing for its special education voucher and private school scholarships.
Allen said two main factors determine state success in expanding school choice through vouchers and more charter schools: There has to be a “strong actor in the state, someone who wakes up every morning with a fire in the belly bound and determined to get it done.”
Second, Allen said there must be “friends on the ground,” strong grassroots groups to “show the Legislature that there is support and to cover the back of that actor.”
I am not sure if we have that “strong actor” in Georgia, although House Speaker Pro Tempore Jan Jones may be the closest thing.
Rep. Jones, R-Milton, is sponsoring HR 1162, a constitutional amendment that would allow the state to approve charter schools over the objections of local school boards and redirect local dollars to them through a legislative sleight of hand.
If HR 1162 passes, the proposed amendment would be on the ballot in November. (You can find a petition for HR 1162 here.)
Last year, the state Supreme Court struck down a state-created commission authorized to approve charters and fund the schools at a level that incorporated local spending. (The state essentially funded the local share and dunned the locals that amount in their state allotment.)
To summarize the Supreme Court’s rationale for rejecting the state commission, I am turning to one of the winning attorneys Thomas Cox, who represented Gwinnett County in the challenge:
The Court ruled that the Charter Commission Act ran afoul of the Georgia Constitution for two primary reasons. First, the Court held that the schools authorized by the Act were not in fact “special schools” as contemplated by the relevant provision of the Georgia Constitution. After examining the history, including comments by committee members and drafters of the relevant sections of the 1983 Constitution, the Court concluded that “special schools” were intended to mean schools that enrolled only students with certain special needs (including, for example, the Georgia School for the Deaf and School for the Blind and vocational trade schools). The term was not intended, according to the Court, to create “a carte blanche authorization for the General Assembly to create its own general K-12 schools so as to duplicate the efforts of or compete with locally controlled schools for the same pool of students educated with the same limited pool of tax funds. ” Second, the Court held that the purported authorization of state-created, but locally operating, charter schools, which are not approved by the local boards of education, infringed on the “fundamental principle of exclusive local control” of public education embodied in the Georgia Constitution.
The success or failure of the forthcoming effort to amend the Georgia Constitution to permit the state to create its own charter schools, with access to locally levied tax revenues, will likely determine whether, going forward, the front lines in the battles over charter schools will be established at the local or state levels. If the Georgia Constitution is amended as proposed by some in the General Assembly, then the State will become the ultimate authority in approving or denying charter schools and in mandating the direction of local tax revenues to fund those schools.
Rep. Jones essentially resurrects the Charter Schools Commission in her resolution, which she will be presenting to the House Education Committee this afternoon. The proposed change to the constitution contains this pivotal nugget with regard to control of locally collected school taxes: “The state is authorized to expend funds for the support and maintenance of special schools in such amount and manner as may be provided by law, which may include, but not be limited to, adjusting the proportion of state funds with respect to the affected local school systems.”
I suspect Georgia voters are going to be wary of turning over the keys to their local treasuries to the state Legislature. School taxes represent a sizable chunk of the local taxes collected, and this constitutional amendment would cede unprecedented access to lawmakers in Atlanta in the name of school choice.
Does anyone trust them enough to do that?
From Maureen Downey, for the AJC Get Schooled blog