If approved by voters next month, Amendment 1 would give appointed state officials — officials answerable to politicians, not to voters — the authority to create and oversee special state-authorized charter schools anywhere in Georgia. The wishes of local voters and locally elected officials would not matter.
In other words, Amendment 1 is about taking power from the hands of the many and concentrating it in the hands of an unaccountable few. If you have any doubt about that claim, look at the heavy-handed manner in which those backing the proposal are trying to silence those who oppose it.
It’s safe to say that no one knows the potential impact of Amendment 1 better than school boards and superintendents. The Georgia School Superintendents Association and the Georgia School Boards Association strongly oppose its passage, as do many school boards, school board members and superintendents.
But according to their critics, they do not have the legal right to express such opinions. Supporters of Amendment 1 claim that school boards, for example, are forbidden from passing resolutions opposing the proposal because that constitutes an illegal use of taxpayer money to influence an election.
They have also enlisted powerful allies in their effort to silence opposition. Georgia Attorney General Sam Olens has issued an advisory opinion that is short on specifics but ominous in tone, warning that “school boards do not have the legal authority to expend funds or other resources to advocate or oppose the ratification of a constitutional amendment by the voters. They may not do this directly or indirectly through associations to which they may belong,” an apparent reference to the school-board and superintendent associations.
Atlanta attorney Glenn Delk, a longtime advocate of private-school vouchers, upped the ante this week when he filed suit against all 180 school boards in the state, insisting on their silence. The concerted effort to intimidate opponents of Amendment 1 has even convinced State School Superintendent John Barge, an elected statewide official, to take down a statement explaining his personal opposition to the proposal from the state Department of Education website.
It’s important to note that the law forbidding use of taxpayer resources to affect elections is important and ought to be respected. But to date, statements by education officials and associations have been well within the customary limits of that law in Georgia.
For example, while Barge pulled down his statement of opposition, as of Tuesday the website of Gov. Nathan Deal still contained two press releases touting the governor’s support of Amendment 1. In addition, Deal traveled to Cherokee County for a high-profile ceremony last spring in which he signed legislation related to Amendment 1, a clear use of taxpayer money to publicize his support of the measure.
Last summer’s failed campaign to rally support for a regional transportation tax also offers a stark contrast. The state Department of Transportation made no secret of its support for T-SPLOST. A FAQ still available on the DOT website warns that if the tax measures are rejected, “Georgia’s regions and the state as a whole would not be able to address its transportation infrastructure needs for a growing population and potential economic development.”
Deal himself endorsed the T-SPLOST in an op-ed column presumably written by state staff at state expense. Among other places, that column was published on the website of the Georgia Municipal Association, under the headline “Georgians need to support T-SPLOST”. GMA serves the same function for city officials that the school board association serves for school-board members. Similar examples can be cited involving the Association County Commissioners of Georgia (the trade organization for county officials), the Atlanta Regional Commission and countless county commissioners.
Yet somehow, perhaps because those in power also backed T-SPLOST passage, none of these examples caught the attention of our attorney general, and no concerted effort was made to silence them. One rule for them, another for everybody else.
– Jay Bookman