There is a lot of back and forth on the announcement earlier in the week by Georgia school chief John Barge that he opposes the GOP-scripted charter schools amendment, starting with an email exchange that I had Wednesday with House Majority Leader Edward Lindsey.
After his strong public rebuke of John Barge, I asked Lindsey this question in an email:
Wondering if you have any second thoughts on your initial response to John Barge?
I plan on writing about this escalating battle of words for the Monday education page. One of my points on criticisms that Barge changed his position: It happens all the time in the Legislature, even to the point of folks changing parties. Candidate Deal himself changed his mind on Race to the Top — in a single day. In the morning, he said he would reject the grant if we won and, later that day, he changed his position.
(I was told that a call from Gov. Perdue was a key factor in Candidate Deal quickly changing his mind on that issue.) In this case, Barge says he is not bowing to political pressure, but to the reality of school funding and the consequences to the 1.6 million Georgia children in public schools.
I could list you a dozen changes of heart by your colleagues that did not result in such strong rebukes. Is that a legitimate criticism given that Barge did not see the financial straits of DOE until he got into the job?
Lindsey’s response to me:
Let’s first start off by placing our respective cards on the table. I was a co-sponsor of the Charter School Constitutional Amendment. As one of your avid readers, I know that you have had deep reservations about the merits of charter schools in general and this measure in particular. Therefore, it should not be surprising that I am dismayed by Superintendent Barge’s 180 % about face and you are heartened by it and wish to justify it.
That said, this is not a situation where policymakers simply disagree. My blunt rebuke and the Governor’s comments were justified and necessary to set the record straight in this situation.
Superintendent Barge was not an education novice who campaigned on an issue he did not fully understand when he ran in 2010. He is an experienced educator who was well versed on the history of the charter school issue and fully understood the arguments for and against — most of which being the same arguments we are hearing today.
Furthermore, this issue came to a boil again shortly after the superintendent took office with the Supreme Court decision in the spring of 2011 striking down much of HB 881. In response, those of us in the legislature and the executive branch worked closely with both advocates and critics of state funded charter schools for a year to answer concerns and fashion a coalition to pass the constitutional amendment in the legislature.
As part of that effort, we worked extensively throughout the process with representatives from Superintendent Barge’s Department of Education for information and guidance. Throughout this long drawn out process, Superintendent Barge never raised opposition to the proposals, voiced fiscal concerns, or otherwise indicated a change of heart.
Therefore, given Superintendent Barge’s extensive history in education before he ran, his documented “strong” support of state charter schools in the 2010 campaign, and his conduct on this issue since his election to the present, my rebuke and the Governor’s more measured comments to him were a well needed clearing of the air.
In this continuing war of words, here is a later email exchange between Barge and Lindsey.
This is how Barge responded to Lindsey’s first statement, the one in which the House leader questioned whether Barge was lying during the campaign or now on how he felt about charter schools:
Dear Rep. Lindsey,
Thank you for your comments on my position on the charter schools amendment. As the state’s top education official, I felt it was important stand up for the 1.6 million students and 111,000 teachers in Georgia’s public schools. I fully support creating high quality charter schools, but I cannot support the constitutional amendment. It would be harmful to the 2,300 public schools in the state that have been cut more than $4 billion since 2008. I am a true conservative who believes in limited government and fiscal responsibility. Establishing a charter school commission would go against both of those principles. First and foremost, we must work to restore school calendars to 180 days and make sure teachers are getting their full annual pay. A new state agency that duplicates the existing work of the state Department of Education and the powers of the State Board of Education – while taking away local control and costing taxpayers millions of dollars – is just plain wrong. If the amendment passes, I will honor the wishes of Georgia voters, but I could not stay silent on an issue so critical to our public schools. I look forward to continuing to work with you on issues relating to education in Georgia.
Georgia Department of Education
And here is what Lindsey said in response:
I appreciate your response e mail and I am copying my GOP caucus and others since they also received my first sharp rebuke to you earlier this week. Quite frankly, however, despite your protestations, you simply cannot match up your present stated position in your email today with your past conduct in this area. I also sharply disagree with the merits of your arguments.
You were not an education novice who campaigned in 2010 by actively seeking out support from charter school advocates and indicated “strong support for state created charter schools. You are an experienced educator who was well versed on the history of the state supported charter school issue and fully understood at that time the arguments for and against — most of which being the same arguments we are hearing today.
Furthermore, this issue returned to a boil again shortly after you took office with the Supreme Court decision in the spring of 2011 striking down much of HB 881. In response, those of us in the Legislature and the executive branch worked closely with both advocates and critics of state funded charter schools for a year to answer concerns and fashion a coalition to pass the constitutional amendment in the Legislature. We also worked to maintain funding of existing state created charter schools with the help of your department.
As part of that effort, we also worked extensively throughout the process with representatives from your Department of Education for information and guidance. Throughout this long drawn-out process, you never raised opposition to the proposals, voiced fiscal concerns, opposed the continued funding of existing state funded charter schools, or otherwise indicated a change of heart. This history is what led to my blunt rebuke of your actions earlier this week.
Turning to the merits of your newly minted position, I share your stated concerns for the 1.6 million public school students in this state and the 111,000 public school teachers. Let me start of by reminding you that charter schools are public schools, charter school students are public school students, and charter school teachers are public school teachers.
Regrettably, there have been cuts in state spending on education since the beginning of the Great Recession in 2008 – as with every other state in this country. Nevertheless, education has seen some of the smallest cuts of any area in our state budget. Our teachers are still the highest paid in the Southeast and after adjusting for cost of living among the highest paid in the nation. Overall funding per pupil in Georgia is also the second highest in the Southeast.
The status quo on education in Georgia is unacceptable. The overall graduation rate in Georgia hovers in the mid 60% range and half of the students who come from low income households drop out before graduating high school. In my household, if my children brought home success records like this from school it would be time for serious changes. It should be same for the Georgia’s education system.
Charter schools are not a silver bullet – there is no one silver bullet – but they are a critically needed tool in the tool box for education reform. Confining children to low performing traditional schools with no hope of an alternative or choice is morally wrong in the 21st century, and under Georgia’s existing state constitution we already have a duty to provide a quality education for every child in Georgia.
I chaired the Charter School Study Committee in 2007 and studied charter schools in Georgia and around the country. Georgia’s present system has left us far behind other states in progress toward true education reform by virtue of many systems’ refusal to even consider charter schools or by other systems literally fiscally starving them to death.
Our charter school proposal provides a simple pressure relief valve – not a fire hose – by giving parents an alternative path for consideration of a charter school application. They must still meet rigorous standards for consideration and, if they fail to perform as promised, they can be shut down. (Let me know the last time a traditional public school was shut down for poor performance.)
You speak of local control. I believe the ultimate local control should rest with the parents and the students. Therefore, I will let you stand with the status quo education bureaucracy. I stand with the students and their parents who deserve better.
In closing, let me also add that I will work with you on other education issues in the future despite my deep disappointment in your reversal on this matter.
State Representative Edward Lindsey (R-Atlanta)
From Maureen Downey, for the AJC Get Schooled blog