Earlier today, we heard from a Republican state senator from DeKalb on the charter schools amendment on the Nov. 6 ballot. State Sen. Fran Millar of Dunwoody wrote a column on why he supports it.
Now, here is the other side from state Sen. Jason Carter, D-Atlanta. Carter is from the 42nd District, representing DeKalb.
By Jason Carter
This year, Georgia voters will be confronted with two proposed amendments to the state constitution. Regardless of their substance, the system for approving amendments is broken, and this threatens the principle that our Constitution draws its power directly from the people.
Proposed constitutional amendments appear on the ballot in the form of a question, drafted by the legislature. The ballot question is also “introduced” with a statement drafted by a committee of three: the Governor, the Lieutenant Governor, and the Speaker of the House. Rather than honestly frame this year’s most controversial constitutional question, Georgia’s current leadership decided to play politics on the ballot itself.
This year’s Amendment One would amend the Constitution to take away local school board control of charter schools and give the state government sweeping new powers. This transfer of ultimate control over certain schools from elected local boards to state bureaucrats is the fundamental change requiring a constitutional amendment and is the amendment’s purpose. Unfortunately, your ballot will not even mention this issue.
Instead, politicians drafted the ballot question to ask: “Shall the Constitution of Georgia be amended to allow state or local approval of public charter schools upon the request of local communities?” This question is intentionally misleading on the fundamental issue of whether local control should be preserved or subverted. In fact, local approval of charter schools already exists, and local school boards have approved more than 200 charter schools in Georgia. The state’s new powers would primarily be meaningful only if a local elected school board had already rejected a charter school’s application. Finally, requests under the proposed system need not, and likely would not, arise organically from “local communities”—they could originate from anywhere, including from groups seeking public money for schools to be run by private, for-profit companies.
The politicians’ “introduction” on the ballot is even more misleading. It says that the amendment: “Provides for improving student achievement and parental involvement through more public charter school options.” Who could be against that? Well, in reality, there is little evidence that the amendment would “improve student achievement.” In fact, a nonpartisan Stanford University study showed that about 20 percent of charter schools performed better than comparable local schools, almost half performed the same, and 37 percent were “significantly worse.”
This manipulation demonstrates that our constitutional amendment process is broken because it allows politicians to put whatever they want on the ballot—with no oversight to prevent abuse. And this has become a habit, no matter who is in power.
In 1988, voters were faced with an amendment that would allow the state government to limit its exposure to lawsuits. When the ballot presented the amendment plainly, the voters rejected it 70 percent to 30 percent. Two years later, an identical amendment appeared on the ballot. But this time, state leaders used a confusing ballot question that made it seem that the amendment would make the state more accountable, not less. The amendment passed. Same amendment. Different ballot language. Opposite result.
In that case, based on legal fictions with no basis in reality, the Georgia Supreme Court failed to intervene. Since then, courts have refused to review ballot language even to ensure basic honesty or an accurate reflection of the proposed amendment’s substance.
Our Constitution is too important to be amended through trickery. To preserve the Constitution’s integrity, we have to demand that our leaders stop designing ballot language to mislead. And when those leaders attempt to bias the vote with false ballot wording, Georgia courts must protect the Constitution by forcing the politicians to rewrite the ballot to reflect the truth.
I personally support charter schools, and I encourage local boards to expand them. But no matter what we think about the state government creating charter schools, or local control of education, we cannot tolerate the ballot being used to mislead voters. The bottom line is this: if an amendment were truly necessary, and if the state’s leadership truly respected Georgia citizens and their right to self-government, then the leaders would tell the truth on the ballot and let Georgia’s voters decide for themselves.
–From Maureen Downey, for the AJC Get Schooled blog