Had you attended the House Education Committee meeting today and listened to the debate around the charter school amendment, you might have been confused about what the proposed change to the state constitution would do. That didn’t seem to faze the House members who passed the amendment despite a lot of nagging questions.
At various points, the amendment was described as a simple effort to clarify the definition of a special school, put into question by the May, 2011, state Supreme Court ruling declaring a state-created Charter Schools Commission illegal. Other times, the amendment was cast as a means to bring charter schools to under-served rural areas where school boards remain hostile to them.
That confusion probably wasn’t an accident.
And it was never even quite clear if the amendment did what its detractors allege, even after the sponsor modified the language to appease them: Does this amendment allow the state of Georgia to channel local funds — through a complex sleight of hand that involves withholding state funds from local systems – to charter schools rejected by local boards but approved by a state entity yet to be named?
The architect of the amendment vacillated over whether the amendment merely “affirmed what we have been doing for 14 years,” as state Rep. Jan Jones of Milton initially explained, or whether it created a legal route around local schools boards to address what she called “their hard-line in approaching start-up charter schools.”
A lesson I’ve learned from the dozens of constitutional amendments that the General Assembly has foisted on the ballots over the years: The more innocuous and innocent the language, the more complicated and costly the consequence.
I asked some educational professionals about how they saw today’s House Education Committee vote and what the amendment actually did.
Here is what Tim Callahan of the Professional Association of Georgia Educators said:
We feel that today’s committee vote was both unfortunate and disappointing. Despite the smoke screens, this is not about naming an alternate authorizer for start-up charters; it is about tapping into local funds without the local board having approved the charter school. It is not about “choice” but who pays for the choices of others. The Supreme Court ruling addressed charter schools that were authorized by the Charter Commission. It did not address schools authorized by the state board of education receiving state, but not local, funds.
Current state law:
“Upon denial of a petition for a start-up charter school by a local board and upon application to the state board by the petitioner, the state board shall approve the charter of a start-up charter petitioner for a state chartered special school if the state board finds, after receiving input from the Charter Advisory Committee, that such petition meets the requirements set forth in Code Section 20-2-2063 and the provisions of this title, and is in the public interest.”
If this were really about alternate authorizers needed to overcome recalcitrant local school boards, current law seems to be just fine. We will oppose this amendment, but continue our support of charter schools – even those who get turned down locally and later get state board approval – as long as local boards are not forced to fund them. The “price” for not getting local board approval is loss of local funds. The remedy for Luddite local boards is appeal to the state board. I think there is at least an imperfect balancing of interests here that does not run roughshod over either local boards or the constitution.
And here is what Angela Palm of the Georgia School Boards Association said:
While the changes to the proposed constitutional amendment took out some of the much-criticized language, it would still give the state the same authority as the previous version. The Georgia School Boards Association remains opposed. We should all keep in mind that the role of the Constitution is to establish the parameters within which the government works. The amendment does not have to be specific about what the state would do; it just has to provide for what the state could do.
The Georgia Charter Schools Association said its own polling shows public support for the amendment.
“As Georgians learn more and more about the success of high performing charter schools, they want this option for their own children,” said Tony Roberts, CEO of the Georgia Charter Schools Association. “Unfortunately, there are not enough charter schools in Georgia to meet the demand. People are astounded to learn how many local school districts have denied well-thought out charter petitions with strong community backing. They have been rightly enraged when local districts have denied renewals to some of the top performing charter schools in the state. We need to change the law, and the Constitutional Amendment is the only way to do so.”
And the amendment has chamber support. “No issue is more important to job creation and the future success of Georgia businesses than the education of our children. In our global economy, employers place a premium on an educated workforce, and public charter schools represent an exciting new opportunity to achieve success on this front. We strongly encourage the legislature to act quickly in passing this measure,” said Georgia Chamber of Commerce President Chris Clark.
If the House and Senate approve this constitutional amendment by the necessary margins, the question may be one of the most important facing voters in November. It is likely many of them will not understand the full implications of what’s being sought. And it won’t be because they can’t read. It will be because they can’t read between the lines.
–From Maureen Downey, for the AJC Get Schooled blog