As election day looms, the AJC examines the emotions and money around the charter school amendment in a Sunday piece. The amendment remains an explosive issue with great interest from both inside and outside the state.
Pro-amendment groups, including national school-choice advocates and for-profit charter school operators, have raised more than $2 million; amendment opponents have collected $123,243, mostly from public school officials, according to an analysis of campaign-finance records by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
Please read the entire piece before commenting.
The AJC editorial page came out today in opposition to Amendment One, saying it would be a waste of taxpayer funds to create a new bureaucracy to do what the state board of education can already do. The AJC joined GOP State School Superintendent John Barge in contending that the creation of another layer of state government is wrong when Georgia has slashed billions from school funding over the last few years, leading to larger classes and shorter school years.
The AJC also looked at charter school enrollment in metro Atlanta and found that the schools have smaller ratios of low-income students. (This link takes you to a blog that discusses the change in the charter school movement, which began to create choices for poor kids trapped in failing schools but now has become a choice vehicle for suburban parents looking for more specialized schooling for their children)
So, there is a lot to read and discuss this weekend.
The ballot language makes no mention of dollars, but billions are at stake. Which is why vast sums are being spent to promote and – to a lesser extent – to oppose the amendment.
With Republican Mitt Romney heavily favored to win Georgia’s presidential contest, the charter school referendum is the local race to watch Tuesday. Pro-amendment forces have mailers, billboards and a television ad campaign extolling educational choice. Opponents are hitting back with a racially-charged radio ad in which The Rev. Joseph Lowery says the proposal would “resegregate our schools.”
Critics say it has sowed confusion. The motto of the pro-amendment side is “Vote YES! for Public Charter Schools,” and the ballot language asks if the state constitution should be amended “to allow state or local approval of public charter schools upon the request of local communities?” A minister and a teacher sued arguing the language is misleading.
Mike Kwon, a 45-year-old Atlanta architect and martial arts instructor, cast an absentee ballot voted for the amendment but realized his error afterward when he chatted with friends by Facebook. He said he supports charter schools but favors less state involvement, not a new commission.
“I think I was totally hoodwinked by the (ballot) language,” Kwon said.
There are more than 100 charter schools in Georgia and two routes to establish them. Charter school applicants must first apply to the local school board. If the application is rejected, they can appeal to the state Board of Education, which may overrule the local officials. Which body approves the application affects whether a charter school receives local property tax dollars or not. Charters with either type approval receive state funds.
The amendment facing voters would create a third route for approval, an appointed state commission.
The issue has created an unpredictable mix of political alliances that make the outcome tough to predict. Prominent tea party activists have aligned with urban black Democrats and the state’s GOP school superintendent in opposing the amendment. On the flip side, many leading Republicans who frequently tout the virtues of local control are pushing for creation of a state commission that could provide a separate avenue for charter applicants.
It’s a fight that involves a huge pot of public dollars. State and local governments spend $13 billion a year to educate Georgia’s 1.6 million K-12 students. Charter schools are independent public schools that operate free of some state rules as long as they meet performance goals. They’re promoted as an antidote to poor-performing public schools.
The Georgia proposal has attracted dollars from stars in the school-choice movement. Deep-pocketed donors include Wal-Mart heiress Alice Walton ($600,000) and StudentsFirst ($250,000), founded by ex-Washington D.C. School Superintendent Michelle Rhee, a leader in the push for teacher accountability.
Some of the large donors backing the amendment have ties to for-profit charter management companies. They include K12 ($100,000), the Herndon, Va-based company that manages cyber charter schools around the country; J.C. Huzienga, ($75,000) who founded Grand Rapids, Mich.-based National Heritage Academies, which manages charter schools including one in Atlanta; and Charter Schools USA ($50,000) in Fort Lauderdale, one of the oldest and largest for-profit operators of charter schools.
Some of the spending will remain secret. A separate effort by Brighter Georgia, a coalition of groups organized by the nonprofit Georgia Charter Schools Association, does not have to disclose its donors or how much it has spent. Brighter Georgia billboards have popped up around Atlanta, and its mailers have blanketed mailboxes. They stop short of asking recipients to vote for the amendment but lay out the benefits of it and of charter schools and look strikingly similar to the campaign mailers.
Bert Brantley, spokesman for Families for Better Public Schools, which has raised and spent the most among the pro-charter groups, said the big donations simply show the breadth of support. “We are very gratified to have such broad support,” he said. “It’s really about giving every child an option.”
Those who oppose the charter amendment say they aren’t surprised by the heavy spending. “This is money versus public schools. It is part of the privatization (of schools) effort. Everybody knows what this is about. It’s about the choice agenda and for-profit companies. There is big money to be made in schools,” Herb Garrett, executive director of the Georgia School Superintendents Association, said.
–From Maureen Downey, for the AJC Get Schooled blog