Georgia Republicans are a little giddy — and understandably so — about how easily the controversial charter-school amendment to the state constitution passed last month. Their 17-point margin of victory suggests to them that they now have an education mandate that extends well beyond state-created publicly funded charter schools.
For example, the vote is already being cited as a reason to double an existing program that today diverts as much as $50 million in state tax money into private schools. The transfer occurs through a convoluted process that gives the state no ability to regulate those schools or to hold them accountable in any way. “There is a real taste for anything that promotes school choice in Georgia,” state Rep. Earl Ehrhart, R-Powder Springs, told the AJC. “Obviously voters said that loud and clear. I think the timing is right.”
Republicans are also pleased and a bit startled by the degree of support that charter schools found among black voters in Georgia. As Pulitzer-winning author and charter-school advocate Doug Blackmon points out on his website, counties with large black populations were more likely to support the charter amendment than the rest of Georgia, even though most black political and community leaders publicly opposed the measure.
“That includes DeKalb (54 percent African-American), where the amendment passed with 64 percent of the vote; and Fulton (43 percent African-American), where it was approved by 66 percent,” Blackmon notes, adding that in Clayton County, 71 percent of voters approved the measure.
For some of the state’s more far-sighted Republicans, numbers like that represent a long-sought opportunity. They now have reason to hope that charter schools and the larger issue of school choice will finally allow them to attract black voters to their party. And for a variety of reasons, I hope they prove to be right.
The increasingly race-defined political system in this state — with conservative white people huddling in the Republican Party and everyone else collecting in the Democratic Party — is not good for the GOP and not good for Georgia. Any honest effort to break that pattern has to be applauded.
However, for Georgia Republicans, the charter vote presents more than a political opportunity; it represents an obligation. They told black parents in Georgia that school choice will improve education for their children; they now have an obligation to try to make good on that promise. And frankly, the track record so far isn’t promising. For example, the private-school “scholarship” program championed by Ehrhart and others may march behind the “choice” banner, but it is essentially a tool by which politically influential middle-class and upper-class Georgians tap into taxpayer money to support their own kids’ private-school education.
The test will be interesting to watch. Will the out-of-state for-profit companies that poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into the pro-charter political campaign now open schools in more challenging urban communities, or will they be allowed to cherry-pick the easier to serve, more profitable communities? Will state officials aggressively intervene to shutter those charter schools that do not live up to the promises that have been made?
Or, like the “scholarship” program, will this become another means by which to separate “our children” from “their children”, and by doing so justify the distrust between black Georgians and the GOP?
– Jay Bookman