Note: This post contains material published here earlier. It is posted here as the electronic version of my Sunday AJC column.
“The provision of an adequate public education for the citizens shall be a primary obligation of the State of Georgia. Public education for the citizens prior to the college or post-secondary level shall be free and shall be provided for by taxation.”
— Article VIII, Section I of the Georgia Constitution
As the Georgia Constitution makes clear, public education is supposed to be a primary obligation of state government. Yet in the 2009-1010 school year, legislators financed just 37.8 percent of the cost of educating Georgia students, leaving local government to cover most of the remainder.
It wasn’t always this way. In fact, 20 years ago, the state financed 51.2 percent of the cost of educating Georgia students, leaving local governments to pick up 37.8 percent. (The remainder is covered by federal dollars.) As recently as 10 years ago, the state still honored its constitutional obligation by picking up considerably more of the cost than local governments. But that changed rather quickly beginning in 2003-2004. That year — the first year in which Republicans controlled the state budgeting process — the state share of financing education fell significantly, and it has continued to fall ever since. The trend has allowed state elected leaders to portray themselves as fiscal conservatives while also chastising “free-spending” officials at the local level who have to raise school property taxes to compensate.
But here’s the galling part: As state leaders shirk the primary obligation assigned them under the constitution, they continue to take an ever-more-intrusive approach on non-financial aspects of education. The most obvious current example is the constitutional amendment that will appear on the November ballot. If approved by voters, the amendment will give state officials full legal authority to create local charter schools even over the protest of locally elected school officials, and to finance those schools with hundreds of millions of dollars in additional state money.
Noting that additional cost and the state’s existing failure to adequately fund public schools, state schools superintendent John Barge, a Republican, came out this week against the proposal. “Until all of our public school students are in school for a full 180-day school year, until essential services like student transportation and student support can return to effective levels, and until teachers regain jobs with full pay for a full school year, we should not redirect one more dollar away from Georgia’s local school districts — much less an additional $430 million in state funds, which is what it would cost to add seven new state charter schools per year over the next five years,” Barge explained.
Local school boards already are creating charter schools around the state as they deem fit, with local voters paying close attention. In Cherokee County, for example, charter-school advocates complained bitterly when the county school board blocked creation of a charter school. They targeted the school board chairman for defeat, hoping to replace her with a charter-school advocate, but they failed. Last month Cherokee voters re-elected that chairman by a large margin, in effect endorsing her cautious approach to charters.
The proposed amendment is intended to strip local officials — and local voters — of the right to make such decisions, placing that power instead in the hands of state officials who are already failing to meet their minimal constitutional obligation to education.
– Jay Bookman