House Speaker David Ralston has said he “didn’t know if we were living in an era of two-thirds votes anymore.” We’ll soon find out.
Last week, Ralston’s House rejected a constitutional amendment restoring the state’s authority to establish charter schools. The measure needed 120 votes but received 110. (It would also need a two-thirds majority in the Senate and a simple majority in a referendum this fall.)
A day later, the House voted to give the measure another chance, as soon as today. Two chief objections stand in the way of at least 10 lawmakers changing their minds.
The first is that the General Assembly should favor local control. This is a familiar refrain, particularly among Republicans. While seven Democrats voted for the amendment, other Democrats like to throw that phrase back in the GOP’s collective face when it departs from that orthodoxy.
But no control is more local than that exercised by parents and students. And this issue is chiefly about them.
Yes, a school board is more local than the state, as far as which level of government would have the authority to empower parents. But the power at the heart of this matter is not the power to approve a charter school, but the power to run that school.
This amendment would let the state grant that more important power to the parents who would send their children to a proposed charter. School systems want to keep it for themselves.
Nor is this really a fight about locally raised tax dollars. Only state tax dollars are at issue, and the state puts conditions on the granting of education funds all the time. School systems re-learn that lesson almost every year.
Fair warning: They might re-learn it even more harshly if the amendment is blocked and a much-discussed Plan B arises. There are a few versions of it, but this much is clear: The mother of all strings would be attached to the funds of school systems hesitant to approve charters.
The second objection is that the amendment is overly broad and could lead to unintended consequences. Normally, I’m sympathetic to this argument. Even if one trusts these lawmakers not to abuse a new power, there’s no guarantee their successors will be so restrained.
But this time is different, because unintended consequences already lie in wait.
This entire debate is taking place only because, last spring, the Georgia Supreme Court struck down a law allowing the state to approve charter schools. That ruling was so broad, future litigants could drive a fleet of yellow school buses through it.
Defenders of the ruling will say it focused only on the authority to create “special schools.” But the language is much broader than that.
The state Constitution, Chief Justice Carol Hunstein wrote, “grant[s] local boards of education the exclusive right to establish and maintain, i.e., the exclusive control over, general K-12 public education” (italics added).
“The constitutional history of Georgia,” Hunstein added, “could not be more clear that, as to general K-12 public education, local boards of education have the exclusive authority to fulfill one of the ‘primary obligation[s] of the State of Georgia,’ namely, ‘[t]he provision of an adequate public education for the citizens.’ ”
That word “exclusive” appears elsewhere in the ruling. Never mind that it doesn’t appear in the sections of the Constitution the ruling cited.
If this court could insert “exclusive” where it did not exist, what’s to stop a future court from applying “exclusive authority” beyond the creation of schools?
If the amendment is not as narrow as possible, the justices who crafted that overly broad ruling last spring bear part of the blame. (And — jargon alert — because the actual text of the law that the amendment would enable is still being drafted, holdout lawmakers have a chance to satisfy themselves the law would be sufficiently narrow before casting a last vote.)
If we are to live under a rule with uncertain effects, better that the responsibility for it — and for fixing it — lie with legislators elected more locally and more often, and with more public scrutiny, than the court’s justices.
And better that those legislators give their constituents a chance to empower themselves when it comes to public education.
– By Kyle Wingfield