Prepare for a miracle next week. And we’re not talking about the transportation sales tax. Not exactly.
At midnight, as Tuesday turns to Wednesday, a layer of fairy dust will fall across Georgia, and your state government will suddenly become a model of competency and efficiency.
That’s because the contest for the transportation sales tax – win or lose – will come to an end that day. In its place, a new, November ballot campaign will rise up, aimed at restoring the state Capitol’s authority to compel local systems to accept public charter schools.
Georgia Republicans have been looking forward to this new fight. The TSPLOST argument has been uncomfortable, splitting two crucial GOP constituencies – its business wing and its anti-tax base. Little else unites the GOP, on a state or national level, like the belief that our educational bureaucracy is a Gordian knot that requires a swift, sharp sword.
You think that, 24 hours after the last vote on the transportation sales tax is cast, Nathan Deal might be crying in his beer? No, next Wednesday night, the governor will be at Bones restaurant in Buckhead, happily raising cash at $1,000-a-head for the charter school campaign. Special honors will go to those who donate $5,000 or $10,000.
It will be an expensive campaign, only in part because the largest part of the state’s educational establishment – school boards, superintendents and PTA chapters in 180 systems – have lined up against it.
Much of the money raised will be required to adjust philosophies that have been hardened during the debate over the transportation sales tax and the $8 billion it would raise statewide. And fairy dust is expensive.
Transportation tax opponents who have been arguing that state government can’t be trusted to tie its own shoes, and that the sovereignty of local governments must be protected at all costs, will have to suddenly believe that Atlanta knows best after all.
As with the TSPLOST issue, look for an argument over the wording of the ballot question. In November, voters will be asked: “Should the Constitution of Georgia be amended to allow state or local approval of public charter schools upon the request of local communities?”
It is the word “or” that rankles opponents of the charter school question. Those of you who diagrammed sentences in elementary school know that you can remove that word “or” and one of its partner words, and the slightly altered sentence still stands, like this: “To allow state approval of public charter schools upon the request of local communities.”
State officials say local school systems wouldn’t be financially penalized should the state assign them a charter school. But dwindling cash will be, in fact, at the root of this campaign.
My Journal-Constitution colleague Wayne Washington has mined one of the most important stats likely to be bandied about in the charter school fight. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, local local school systems across the nation are paying a higher share of the cost of public education than state governments for the first time in 16 years.
In 2010, Georgia’s public primary and secondary schools received 38 percent of their funding from the state. Local school systems were responsible for 48 percent. Federal and private sources made up the rest, according to the census bureau.
Thirty-eight percent is a shaky, minority perch from which to make demands.
Now, the state has its own numbers that can be used to argue it remains the big dog in school funding. According to Department of Education statistics, the state last year picked up 48 percent of the cost of education, compared to 41 percent put up by local systems. But these DOE figures omit capital costs – money spent on the physical upkeep of old buildings, the constructions of new ones and such.
Cedric Johnson, an educational analyst with the Georgia Budget & Policy Institute, called the census bureau numbers — which spotlight the shrinking state role — “reliable and useful.”
So did Alvin Wilbanks, who since 1996 has been the superintendent for the Gwinnett County school system, one of the largest in the state.
“If you take the total budget for this current year – we’ll spend about 47 percent local, about 45 percent state, and there’s about 8 percent federal,” Wilbanks said.
“Since they’ve started the austerity reductions – that’s what they call budget cuts – that has really changed the dynamics of school funding,” he said. “The percentage the state’s putting in is the lowest since I’ve been in this business.”
The ebb and flow of the charter school fight could be eerily similar to the transportation sales tax campaign. Rural Georgia, where education money is tightest, is considered hostile territory. Any margin of victory will come from metro Atlanta.
And like the campaign for the transportation sales tax, some public officials will try to stay out of its way. Asked whether he would campaign for the charter school question, state School Superintendent John Barge expressed a fondness for charter schools in an email, but added this: “We will, of course, respect the will of the citizens of Georgia regarding how charter schools are authorized.”
But Barge offered the possibility that money might quiet the coming argument. “I hope that the coming budget cycle will see some restoration of the past 10 years of austerity reductions to local school systems [that] are struggling to meet the very basic educational needs of students,” he wrote.
- By Jim Galloway, Political Insider