Few people claim to be a true conservative by complaining about preventing judicial activism and saving money. But state schools superintendent John Barge tried it last week.
On Tuesday, Barge proclaimed his opposition to a constitutional amendment that would ensure the state’s authority to create charter schools. Barge cited three key factors: his support for local control, his desire to limit government, and the $430 million he said the amendment would cost the state over five years.
But Barge left out a few things.
I won’t spend much time on local control. As I’ve explained before, no control is more local than that wielded by parents and students, who would be empowered by this amendment. To fret over whether the state or a local school board grants them that power is to focus on the wrong question.
Barge’s reference to limited government concerns the state charter schools commission which the amendment would re-establish, reversing a 2011 state Supreme Court ruling. Here again, Barge misses the point.
A commission might seem duplicative given that the court’s ruling did not block the state school board from creating charter schools. But as the majority opinion notes, the court did not address the school board’s authority because it wasn’t asked to do so. The ruling does make clear, though, that a majority of the justices believe the Constitution gives the power to create schools almost exclusively to local school boards. The exceptions are special state schools serving, for example, the deaf or blind.
Given the ruling’s sweeping language, the only thing preventing the court from striking down the state school board’s chartering authority is another lawsuit. And if that lawsuit succeeded, we would be right back where we are today — if, and only if, the Legislature could summon another two-thirds majority to put the amendment back on the ballot. That was no small feat this year.
After the court’s ruling, the state school board continued to award charters, and Gov. Nathan Deal and legislators added money for those schools to bring them closer to the funding traditional public schools get, thanks to their local tax bases. The money comes from a different pot than that used for traditional school funding. Now Barge argues that “extra” money for future charter schools, $430 million between now 2018 by his count, should be used to restore budget cuts.
Here’s what he didn’t say. First, the supplemental spending for charters this year, about $33 million, amounts to just 2.9 percent of this year’s education shortfall, less than $20 per student.
Second, despite the cuts, state education spending per pupil has increased by 10 percent since 2003. No windfall, but hardly brutal austerity.
Most damning of all, though, is that local systems stand to save money that far exceeds that “extra” spending by the state.
This year, that state supplement of $33 million covers almost 16,000 students at state-chartered schools. But the average local school system in Georgia spent almost $3,700 per student in 2011, the most recent year for which data are available.
At 16,000 students, that comes out to local savings of about $58.6 million. Not a bad trade. At that rate, local systems would save about $750 million over five years.
Parental control, legal certainty and more savings. I call that a conservative solution.
– Kyle Wingfield