Updated at 11 a.m.
The battle over the charter schools amendment escalated yesterday when attorney Glenn Delk, a longtime champion of vouchers and choice, filed a a lawsuit charging that Georgia school districts were illegally using taxpayer resources to oppose the amendment.
It will be interesting to see how the court responds given how many government officials and entities campaigned for the defeated TSPLOST. (It’s also interesting to note how much political activity and money are going into this charter schools amendment battle.)
Delk had already challenged the legality of even John Barge, the elected Republican school chief in Georgia, taking a public stand on the amendment via his office at the state Department of Education.
As the charter schools amendment battle has heated up, Attorney General Sam Olens issued a warning letter saying that a public agency — which would cover the executive and legislative branches of state government — should not use public funds to try to influence the outcome of a referendum.
It also raises the question — sidestepped by the Attorney General’s office when I asked last week – whether the Georgia Charter Schools Association, a trade group underwritten by tax dollars via school membership fees — also cannot lobby for the amendment.
The exact wording of the AG’s response to me: In the context of associations, our letter made clear that government entities cannot lobby voters indirectly through associations that are essentially extensions of the government entities. Whether a particular association is essentially an extension of a government entity is a fact-specific question that we can’t answer in the abstract.
But the governor and the Legislature often try to influence outcomes of votes in very open fashion. Gov. Nathan Deal and many lawmakers pushed hard for TSPLOST. Governors and General Assembly leaders don’t write and send their own press statements. Their paid staffers handle those details. Nor do governors gas up their own cars and drive to press conferences.
There are often tax dollars at work when a top elected official takes a public stand in the hopes of influencing the outcome of a referendum. It will be interesting to see whether Olens presses this position in the future as he could have a full-time job writing letters telling elected officials they can’t use their office resources to influence outcomes.
My colleague Jim Galloway just posted on whether Olens is selectively targeting charter amendment opponents and ignoring the lobbying for proponents, including Nathan Deal.
Democrats have now demanded that Olens apply the same measure to Gov. Nathan Deal, an advocate of the proposed constitutional amendment to give the state another avenue through which to create charter schools – over the objections of local systems.
From a letter sent to Olens by Mike Berlon, chairman of the state Democratic party:
Based upon your legal conclusion, the actions of the Governor are clearly in violation of the law. Consequently, we are formally requesting that your office take immediate action against the Governor to ensure the proper enforcement …. It doesn’t seem reasonable or fair that the application of your opinion would not extend to the Executive branch of the government.”
Back to charter schools:
The suit, filed in the Superior Court of Fulton County, alleges they and “the rest of the Education Empire are engaged in a coordinated campaign and conspiracy.”
Lawyers for the districts and Glenn Delk, the Atlanta attorney representing those filing suit, are scheduled to appear before a judge Wednesday afternoon. The judge has been asked to order the districts to stop engaging in political activity with taxpayer resources and “to disseminate factual information prepared by the plaintiffs.”
Instead of the typical ‘no comment’ offered in legal cases, Fulton County Schools Superintendent Robert Avossa reiterated his position that his district did nothing wrong in posting question-and-answer material about the amendment on its website. That information remains on the district’s site, and Delk’s clients claim it is misleading and openly anti-amendment.
Avossa said parents have questions about the proposed amendment, which, if approved by voters in November, would guarantee the state’s power to authorize charter schools and establish a commission to consider applications for them.
“I get so many questions on this,” Avossa said. “We decided to put a Q-and-A together. Let’s answer the questions.”
Jeannie “Sis” Henry, executive director of the Georgia School Boards Association, said board members will not be intimidated into dropping their opposition. “This is no conspiracy,” Henry said. “This is not the Evil Empire. These are educators, and they’re opposed to this.”
Monday’s filing disclosed Delk’s clients, whom he previously declined to identify. They include Rae Anne Harkness, a charter school parent in DeKalb County; Kelley O’Bryan Gary, chairman of the Jackson County Republican Party; and Rich Thompson, founder and chief executive officer of 100Dads, a charter school parent group that supports school choice.
The charter school fight splits largely along party lines, with many Democrats opposing the amendment as a potential funding threat to traditional public schools and many Republicans supporting it as an alternative to parents whose children attend failing traditional public schools.
There are notable exceptions, including Georgia Schools Superintendent John Barge, a Republican who angered many in his party by coming out against the amendment. In announcing his opposition, Barge released a 29-point statement, parts of which some districts have used in relaying information about the amendment to parents.
–From Maureen Downey, for the AJC Get Schooled blog