The past 30 years have seen the creation of a long list of litmus tests for Republicans.
A license to practice as an orthodox conservative in Georgia now mandates opposition to abortion and gay marriage, a firm belief in tax cuts as the driver of economic growth, and an antipathy toward federal regulation.
But days ago, the Cherokee County GOP nominated still another test. It passed a resolution that demanded four county school board members reconsider their opposition to the local funding of charter schools or “renounce their affiliation with the Republican Party.”
School choice, the local party declared, is no longer a negotiable issue.
Pay attention to this. This clash between the philosophical and the practical could be headed the way of your school board very soon. And it will have many of you wondering whether you truly are the conservative you think you are.
This is what Mike Chapman, a Canton businessman, would tell you. He’s been active in the local Chamber of Commerce, served on the board of the area technical college and — for the past 10 years — occupied a seat on the all-GOP Cherokee County Board of Education.
Chapman considers himself the picture of a civic-minded, cut-don’t-tax Republican. At least he did until, with three of his colleagues, he was read out of his party. “As a conservative, where do I go when the Republican Party has left the building?” Chapman said. “Locally, I mean. I’m not talking about anywhere else.”
The spat is an outgrowth of this spring’s decision by the Georgia Supreme Court, which ruled that the state-issued licenses of 16 charter public schools were unconstitutional because they stepped on the prerogatives of local systems.
The 16 schools were advised to go back to their nearest local boards of education, where they could attempt to negotiate a place in each school system. Among those schools was Cherokee Charter Academy, which had already been turned down twice by the Cherokee County school board.
In June, after heated debate and a 4-3 vote, the school board rejected the academy a third time. Chapman was joined by Janet Read, Robert Wofford and Chairman Rick Steiner.
It’s important to note that, last month, Gov. Nathan Deal found a spare $10 million to assure that Cherokee Charter Academy and seven other orphaned charter schools could keep their doors open — at least this year. Cherokee Charter’s students will begin classes Monday.
The state funding didn’t stop the Cherokee GOP, which had backed acceptance — and funding — by the local school board. The resolution was unanimous. “As a party, we came down on the side of freedom,” said Brian Laurens, the first vice president of the Cherokee GOP.
The fight may really be about one’s definition of local control. For Laurens and his Cherokee Republican brethren, that means power in the hands of parents who act as the charter school’s governing board. To Chapman, local control — and responsibility — falls to a duly elected school board.
But we are now in an era replete with suspicion of government at any level. “I’ve come to realize that that attitude is now transcending all the way to the lowest, local level — which would be your school board,” Chapman said.
“One of the things you have to realize, whether you like it or not, is that public education is the government. And if you’re conservative, or you’re tea party, and you have an issue with big government — therefore you have an issue with your local public schools.”
Chapman is ambiguous when it comes to the general topic of charters — they have their place in hot spots of public school failures, he thinks. But he says his opposition to Cherokee Charter Academy rested primarily on the fact that the school is to be managed by a for-profit Florida company.
And the school board would be handing over taxpayer dollars.
“We kept going back to that,” Chapman said. The school board said it would have to see — and approve — the charter school’s budget. The managing firm said no.
“Right there, the deal’s done. It’s over,” he said. “We have to be able to see that. That’s not a Republican or a Democratic thing. That’s just the way it is.”
On the coin’s other side is that deep-rooted suspicion of government. “If we’re allotting the same amount of money per student to a charter school — which is a public school — as long as that charter school is above par and doing well, why do we need to micromanage?” asked Laurens. “What we’re dealing with is an overbearing administration.”
The exact consequences of the Cherokee GOP’s decision haven’t been fully studied. Primary challenges are a possibility. “I’m sure these guys will find themselves not being supported by the party if they run in the Republican primary,” Laurens said.
Meanwhile, Democrats — a very modest force in Cherokee County politics — wonder whether they’ve been handed an opening.
“[Republicans] say they believe in freedom and in choice, but their conduct indicates otherwise. They clearly demand conformity and obedience to party doctrine,” Georgette Thaler, chairwoman of the Cherokee Democratic Party, said Friday. “It’s really kind of scary.”
- By Jim Galloway, Political Insider