The battle in Georgia to win passage of a controversial charter school amendment turned out to be costly, divisive and polarizing.
Many might also argue it was unnecessary, given that charter schools were never in jeopardy and more continue to open every year in Georgia.
The state Board of Education already had the ability to approve them, and local school boards, despite the characterization that most were hostile toward charters, authorized nine out of 10 of the existing 108 charter schools now operating in Georgia.
It’s a futile exercise now to question the rationale for the amendment, which, in its most practical application, accords the state Legislature the power to appoint a commission that can approve and fund charter schools over the objections of local boards of education.
The benign question put before voters — “Shall the Constitution of Georgia be amended to allow state or local approval of public charter schools upon the request of local communities?”— earned a “Yes” from an impressive 58.5 percent of Georgians.
So, now is the time to consider the impact of the passage of the amendment on education as a whole in Georgia.
And that impact is likely to be consequential to the 1.6 million Georgia children who attend public schools in Georgia.
Because now the Legislature will be convinced that it’s done its part for education by giving students more choice.
Lawmakers can relax and let choice work its magic. If students don’t do well, it will be blamed on their parents failing to make the right choice.
In elevating choice to their top legislative priority, lawmaker shirked what ought to be their main concern: Ensuring that existing public schools in Georgia remain viable and have sufficient resources to educate students to increasingly higher standards.
Instead, they have consistently disinvested in public schools while touting marketplace solutions.
Choice is not a substitute for adequate funding, talented teachers and strong leaders.
And more choices don’t necessarily mean better choices.
In the last 10 years, a period when school enrollment rose, austerity cuts and other reductions decimated state education funding by $5.7 billion. Two-thirds of Georgia’s 180 school districts have been forced to cut back on school days.
In four districts around the state, students now attend classes less than 150 days, even though the standard is 180 days. Class sizes have soared, with parents lamenting 37 kids in middle and high school classes.
A Georgia Budget and Policy Institute study noted that while enrollment jumped, teacher contracts in Georgia fell by 8,500 since 2008-2009.
The first education act by the 2013 General Assembly will be reconstituting the Charter School Commission that was in place before the state Supreme Court deemed it unconstitutional and an infringement on local control last year. And that will ensure a few more charter schools approved every year.
Charter schools are publicly funded schools that are privately operated and earn freedom from some state regulations in exchange for contractual pledges to not only meet standards set by the state, but eventually exceed them.
If charter schools fail to meet their contractual goals, they’re supposed to shut down. An examination of national data shows that doesn’t always happen, as parents often argue in favor of the school remaining open despite disappointing academics — a scenario that unfolds in many school closings. (Hundreds of DeKalb County parents fought closings there, even when the targeted schools had years of low achievement.)
As with every school model, charter schools show varying degrees of success and failure. An evaluation earlier this year by the state Department of Education found that charter schools in Georgia were less successful than traditional schools in meeting federally mandated, adequate yearly progress measures and had graduation rates in line with the state average.
No one who looks at the performance of charter schools in those states where there are many more of them could argue that they have been a transformative agent.
Without question, charter schools should be part of a mix of innovations and reforms. Unfortunately, in Georgia, charter schools have become the only reform. As one rural legislator commented to me about his House colleagues, “We’ve put all our eggs in the charter school basket.”
And all their hopes and energies.
–From Maureen Downey, for the AJC Get Schooled blog