Perhaps you thought that trip to the polls would settle the struggle for control over your kid’s education – the one waged between the public school establishment and the ladies and gentlemen who inhabit the state Capitol.
Not a chance.
The ballot issue to reaffirm the state’s authority to license charter schools, even over the objection of local school systems, enjoyed easy passage on Tuesday, confirming a new path for privatized education in Georgia.
But consider that vote a mere first volley. The next chapter, already being written, will be a vast melodrama with elements of revenge, naked assertions of power and – perhaps – some consideration of what’s best for more than 1.6 million kids who answer the bell each day.
Legislation is now being crafted to reduce the clout of Georgia’s 180 local school boards by making it easier for parents to seize control of individual schools.
And there’s the question of whether state School Superintendent John Barge, who bucked much of the state’s Republican leadership by opposing Tuesday’s charter school measure, will be reduced to a powerless figurehead.
At its root, the fight over Amendment One was yet another consequence of Georgia’s stalemate approach to education. Policy is in the hands of a school superintendent elected statewide, who answers to – but can’t be fired by — a state Board of Education appointed by the governor.
Gov. Nathan Deal is also in charge of the billions of dollars allocated each year to education, and requires control over how it’s spent.
Last month, at the height of the charter school debate, Barge sent a letter to Deal, announcing that he had rejected the governor’s selection and picked his own person to keep track of $400 million in federal “Race to the Top” cash.
“I am responsible for ensuring that [funds] are used to achieve the goals set forth,” Deal reminded Barge, in writing. More important, the governor noted that he – not Barge – is the one who fields the phone calls when Washington is unhappy.
In two years, both will be judged on how Georgia’s schools have fared. Their symbiotic relationship is best expressed on Barge’s re-election campaign website, johnbarge.com. Its home page features a half-dozen photos of the state school superintendent with Sandra Deal, wife of the governor and a former teacher.
On another page of the website is a picture of the governor and Barge, with the headline “Will the ‘real Republican’ please stand?” But Barge hasn’t just ticked off a governor. Speaker pro tem Jan Jones, R-Milton, served as the public face of the charter school campaign. Her friends in the House are displeased.
This spring, the Legislature passed a bill to give Barge more power. Deal vetoed it. Lawmakers won’t repeat themselves next year. In fact, Barge must now worry whether the Legislature will attempt to strip him of his budgetary authority – as happened in Virginia. (As a constitutional officer, Barge’s job can’t be erased.)
Only a few years ago, Roy Barnes created the Governor’s Office of Student Achievement to bypass state School Superintendent Linda Schrenko. She’s now doing time for diverting federal funds intended for deaf and blind students into her 2002 gubernatorial campaign – and toward a facelift.
A smaller target for lawmakers: The Department of Education has a charter school division that could be removed from Barge’s control.
Then we have “parent trigger” legislation now being drafted by House Majority Whip Edward Lindsey, R-Atlanta, to make it easier for parents to convert their traditional public school into a charter school – and allow them to take direct control over the hiring and firing of school administrators. “This will simplify the process, and hopefully open up a greater dialogue between the parents and school board and administration,” Lindsey said.
Lindsey agrees that both sides in the charter school fight need to cool off. “We need to beat our respective weapons into chalkboards,” he said.
Some school officials across the state agree that the charter school fight has shown the need for closer contact with parents. “We have to really listen to what people are saying about their public schools,” said Jeannie “Sis” Henry, executive director of the Georgia School Boards Association.
As for beating their swords into chalkboards, don’t count on it. “They’ve awoken a sleeping giant. The education community is as galvanized as I’ve ever seen it. They’re very concerned about the lack of resources,” she said.
Henry predicted a small army would be on hand come January, when the Legislature convenes and the fight over your kid’s school begins again.
- By Jim Galloway, Political Insider