Adam Emerson is the Thomas B. Fordham Institute’s school choice czar, directing the Institute’s policy program on parental choice and editing the Choice Words blog. This piece ran on the AJC print education page Monday. It originally appeared in slightly longer form on the Choice Words blog, which you can check out here.
By Adam Emerson
Charter school supporters can claim victory in two high-profile ballot initiatives, Georgia and Washington, but each state has a different story to tell — and lessons to teach.
In what may arguably be defined as a landslide, 59 percent of Georgia voters empowered the state to create an independent commission to authorize charter schools. But that margin of victory doesn’t even tell the whole story.
Consider Gwinnett County, the state’s largest school district, which has allowed only three charter schools within its boundaries and which filed the original lawsuit that ultimately killed Georgia’s previous independent authorizer, hence the constitutional amendment.
Gwinnett schools Superintendent J. Alvin Wilbanks once said that the question before voters would only empower the state to “privatize, defund and dismantle public education.” But 63 percent of the county’s voters disagreed with him and said yes to the amendment.
The state’s largest counties followed suit, including Fulton, where 66 percent of voters said yes, and DeKalb, 64 percent.
This highlights the arrogance of Wilbanks and other district superintendents, who warned that the amendment would only diminish “local control” of public education.
In Gwinnett, charter students make up less than 1 percent of the public school population. Perhaps Gwinnett was on Republican state Sen. Fran Millar’s mind when he wrote recently on the AJC Get Schooled blog that “there are areas of this state where local school boards will not approve any charter school.”
But Gwinnett was hardly alone. DeKalb, the state’s third largest county, added just two charter schools in the past five years. Two of Georgia’s relatively larger counties, Cobb and Richmond, have the same number of charter schools they had five years ago (six and two, respectively).
That’s why citizens said yes to a charter commission independent of Georgia-style “local control.” An overwhelming number decided that the most “local” kind of school is one where the decision-making power rests at the school level, not in some faraway district office that holds veto power over all public education.
Now, promising charter providers in Georgia will no longer have to depend only on the whims of a recalcitrant school board.
The same can’t be said for Washington state, however. While Georgia can claim a landslide, charter advocates in the Evergreen State got by with a squeaker.
At last count, Washington’s Initiative 1240 won 50.8-49.2 percent, indicating that Seattle and other cities may finally see charter schools (Washington was previously the largest state without a charter law).
A victory is a victory, but Washington’s charter initiative narrowly passed despite the fact that proponents outspent opponents by $10 million. Washington has asked voters to approve charter schools three times before, with voters saying no every time.
With such a polarized electorate, advocates and charter operators will have plenty of work ahead to assure voters that the schools they plan to open over the next five years will add quality, innovation and variety to a public-education landscape that has done little to accommodate pluralism.
And pluralism is what emerged on Election Day — even in states with far different stories to tell. Whatever transpires in the years to come, voters in Georgia and Washington worked to make public education much more local.
–From Maureen Downey, for the AJC Get Schooled blog