How cool are you with your school?
If you live in Cherokee County, your answer to that question on July 31 will certainly determine who is the next chairman of your local school board.
But that same answer could also shake up the leadership of the state Senate, and, just maybe, offer a hint as to whether Georgia voters – in November – will embrace one of Gov. Nathan Deal’s top education priorities.
Call it the Cherokee County charter school stew.
Here’s the stripped-down back story: Thrice did a group of Cherokee parents petition their county school board to accept the Cherokee Charter Academy into the public school system. Thrice did the school board refuse, on a 4-3 vote. System officials declared that the charter school brought nothing new to the table – and would drain a system already strapped for cash.
But the charter school movement has considerable clout in the state Capitol.
A first effort by the state to force Cherokee County – and other school systems — to support charter schools they had rejected was declared by the Georgia Supreme Court to be an unconstitutional intrusion on local government.
The Cherokee academy, like a handful of other charter schools, now exist on emergency funding.
This spring, the governor pushed through a proposed constitutional amendment to permit the state to override local school systems on the establishment of charter schools. It will be on the ballot in November.
Also this spring, state lawmakers passed, and Deal signed, new district lines for the Cherokee school board. Conveniently, two charter academy opponents were drawn out of their districts.
One of them, eight-year veteran Janet Read, is now running for chairman of the school board – a new, countywide position approved by the Legislature. Her opponent is Danny Dukes, a financial consultant who also is a member of the Cherokee Charter Academy’s governing board.
No one doubts the charter school decision will be front and center. “I am happy with the school district. We’ve been moving forward in the right direction,” Read said. To satisfy – appease may be a better word — those demanding school choice, the school board recently approved six elementary school “academies,” where parents could send their children for studies that emphasize the sciences or the arts.
Her opponent expresses more restlessness. “Reacting to change is not the appropriate way to manage change,” Dukes said. “A lot of times, I think just think that we can do better in education. It’s not that there’s anything falling apart in Cherokee County. But we’re missing the innovation in education.”
None of the above would merit more than a few hot PTA meetings in Canton or Woodstock, were it not for the fact that the argument has spilled over into at least one legislative contest.
The newly redrawn Senate District 21 spans eastern Cherokee, and dips for the first time into north Fulton. The seat is occupied by Majority Leader Chip Rogers, R-Woodstock, the No. 2 leader of the Senate and perhaps the Capitol’s most powerful advocate of shaking up education in Georgia – whether through charter schools or vouchers.
The charter school fight in Cherokee has encouraged Brandon Beach, president of the North Fulton Chamber of Commerce and a member of the state transportation board, to mount a primary challenge to Rogers.
Beach, a former Alpharetta councilman who lost a 2010 Senate bid, concedes he has an uphill battle. As of March 31, Rogers had $307,000 in his campaign treasury. Beach has perhaps $3,000. “I’m clearly at a disadvantage,” he said.
But Beach sees an opening. “Chip and I have a fundamental disagreement on how to do charter schools,” he said. “It’s local control versus a top-down, Washington style.”
Again, there is that question: How well do you like your school? Beach is betting that the parents of Cherokee, like north Fulton, are relatively happy. “Why is Chip trying to dismantle Cherokee public schools? He should be trying to replicate Cherokee County schools throughout the state of Georgia,” he said in an interview.
Beach can be blunt. He also accused Rogers of losing touch with Cherokee residents, citing the fact that the state lawmaker doesn’t send his kids to public schools. Rogers acknowledged this, saying the decision was based on his religious beliefs – but declared it “disgraceful” that Beach would bring his family into the contest.
Rogers said he doesn’t see the link between the charter schools fight and his re-election bid. “I would not agree that they’re tied together,” he said. The majority leader intends to run on his 10-year record. “If I’m not the most conservative member of the state Senate, I’m one of the most conservative,” Rogers said.
And yet, Rogers was quick to point out that Beach’s position on charter schools – with its emphasis on local control – runs contrary to a unanimous vote by Senate Republicans, and a Republican governor’s signature.
The majority leader says Deal has promised his support during the primary fight. The governor’s staff confirms that this is so – even though Rogers stands in opposition to another Deal priority, the transportation sales tax.
Last week, when it came time to sign charter school legislation that would go into effect once voters give their approval in November, Deal went to Cherokee County to exercise his pen.
The venue was not a coincidence. The last thing the governor wants is for the Cherokee County charter school stew to serve as the starting point for a counter-revolution in education.
- By Jim Galloway, Political Insider