Change Lives With Your Vote! - Amendment 1 (Charter Schools) - By Rep Ed Setzler
Imagine a small town in which there was only one restaurant and it was owned by the town Mayor. For over 30 years, every time other restaurants tried to come to town, the Mayor turned them away insisting, “No thank you; this town has all of the restaurants it needs!” Contending that the quality and variety of food was as good as it can get and that outside competition would threaten the 18 existing jobs at his restaurant, the Mayor exercised his sole authority year after year to keep away all competitors. If you lived in this community, and the legislature put before the voters the option to allow competition among restaurants, would you vote to allow Ryan’s, Wendy’s, or a locally owned restaurant to compete with the Mayor’s establishment? I think all of us would.
Unfortunately, public education in Georgia looks a lot like this small town’s restaurant scene. After a highly controversial 2011 Georgia Supreme Court decision, local school boards now have the absolute power to prevent any public charter school from forming that is not under the direct control of the school board. Although public charter schools that are independent of school boards have an exceptional track record nationwide, the Georgia public school establishment is doing everything in its power to kill Amendment 1, a ballot measure which if passed would allow well organized groups of parents and teachers to form independent 501(c)(3) non-profit public charter schools in which a parent board of directors would hire their own principal, pick their own curriculum, and run an independent public school that receives public funding as long as its students meet annual performance standards.
Wooing citizens to vote away their right to create independent public schools, the powerful education establishment desperately opposed to Amendment 1 is invoking arguments of “local control,” “follow the money,” and “private companies are after your tax dollars.” These shallow objections from status quo advocates reveal quite a bit more than they would like: (1) providing choices for parents, not politicians is the essence of local control and (2) the real money to watch is the $14 billion of tax money over which the Georgia public school establishment maintains absolute control. Follow the money indeed! Ranking only behind Retail and Healthcare, the Georgia Department of Labor ranks Education as the third largest industry in Georgia, consisting of roughly as many employees as the Manufacturing and Agricultural sectors combined. Why should any monopoly of this size, public or private, have the authority itself to decide whether quality competitors should be allowed to serve to the public? Shouldn’t some outside commission or appellate authority have that power? Given that local school boards in 2007 turned down 25 of 25 independent charter applications, is there any hope that local school boards will ever allow real competition from independent charter school groups? The answer is unambiguously: No.
If you care about providing educational choices to parents who cannot afford private school options, I urge you to consider the following question before making a decision on Amendment 1: Is there even one public school in Georgia to which you would not be willing to send your child? If there is, then for the sake of the hundreds of children who will inevitably “draw the short straw” and be forced to attend that failing school, please vote in support of Amendment 1. Give their parents the same option that you enjoy – one that will never be available to them if local school boards retain their unchecked power over the educational lives of children.
In response to the countless questions I have received regarding the charter amendment, I encourage you to consider and share the following questions and answers with as many Georgians as possible so that we can all make an informed decision on November 6:
- Should parents or should local elected officials have the power to decide where a child goes to school?
- Do children from poor families have the same right to an education as children from wealthy families?
- Should any service provider, public or private, be given the absolute power (subject to NO appeal) to eliminate all competition? Does healthy competition tend to improve or undermine performance?
- Should well-organized groups of parents and teachers be allowed to form an independent public school in which an elected parent board of directors hires the principal, picks the curriculum, and receives public funding as long as its students meet high annual performance standards?
(1) What is a public charter school?
Public charter schools are independent 501(c)(3) non-profit public schools in which a parent board of directors hires their own principal, picks the school’s curriculum, and runs an independent public school that receives public funding as long as its students meet high annual performance standards. Operating successfully in 41 states, they are non-religious, non-sectarian public schools that are required to accept any student that applies, operate on five year contracts with renewal tied to academic performance, and in Georgia serve a much higher percentage of minority students than do traditional public schools.
(2) What is the history of charter schools in Georgia?
Public charter schools were first created in Georgia in the 1990’s under the control of local school boards to give inner city parents the option of a more personalized public school environment for their children. The success of these schools led the charter movement grow steadily in Georgia such that by 2007, 25 charter school applications were submitted to local school boards by independent parent and community groups. Unfortunately, local school boards denied all 25 of these independent charter school applications. Prompted by a multi-year pattern of solid charter schools being denied by local school boards, the Georgia legislature acted in 2008 to create an appeals process in which charter school petitioners could appeal the denial of a local school board to a single appellate authority called the Georgia Charter School Commission. This volunteer commission was established as an auxiliary to the State Board of Education with the sole responsibility of reviewing and authorizing strong public charter schools that had been denied by local school boards. Charged with setting very high standards for the approval of charter schools on appeal over local school boards, the commission approved only 16 of 82 charter appeals it considered in its two years of existence 2009-2010. By approving less than 20% of charter applications, the commission ensured that the 16 charter schools that were approved on appeal would be among the highest quality public charter schools in the state. The very lean charter commission organization was staffed by three employees reassigned from the state Department of Education at no additional cost to the tax payer, and unlike the State Board of Education whose members are appointed by the Governor, would be led by appointees from both the legislative and executive branches. Although commission charter schools have operated on dramatically less funding than traditional schools, test scores from the 16 commission charters have been significantly higher than those from their traditional and district approved charter school counterparts.
In March 2011, prompted by a bitter lawsuit from the state’s largest school system, the Georgia Supreme Court led by Chief Justice Carol Huntstein ruled in a highly controversial 5-4 decision that the legislature did not have the lawmaking authority under the Georgia Constitution of 1983 to establish an appeals process over the decisions of local school boards. In its ruling, the Huntstein Court ruled that without an amendment to the 1983 Georgia Constitution, local school boards have the “exclusive authority” to create public schools, voiding any law allowing a state entity to create a public school, originally or upon appeal. Committed to the ability for local communities to provide real public school options to parents, the Georgia legislature voted to put Amendment 1 on the November 6 ballot by a strong bipartisan 2/3 supermajority in the both houses.
(3) What are the advantages of charter schools?
- One advantage of public charter schools is if students fail to meet the academic performance commitments established in their five year charter, they are shut down. When was the last time a traditional public school was shut down for poor performance?
- Charter schools provide low-income parents very similar educational options to those available to wealthy parents. Under the status quo, wealthy families essentially have school choice while poor or single-parent families who cannot relocate to areas with high achieving schools, pay for private schools, or home school their children are stuck with the zoned schools to which they are assigned by their local school board.
Consider this: If there is even one public school anywhere in the State of Georgia that you would not be willing to send your child, aren’t you morally obliged to support Amendment 1? To do otherwise is to accept that hundreds of children, whose parents don’t have the means to live elsewhere, will “draw the short straw” and be forced to attend the troubled school that you would not be willing to send your child.
- Amendment 1 provides an important appeals process to strong charter schools that is viciously opposed by the public school establishment. School boards, teachers unions, and so-called parent-teacher organizations have shown a willingness to say or do virtually anything to fight Amendment 1. With the goal of maintaining absolute control over the $14 billion in taxpayer money spent annually on public education in Georgia, these groups have gone to the very edge of violating Georgia law by fighting this initiative using public resources in faculty meetings and in sending flyers home with students to “educate” parents with their one-sided view of Amendment 1. Sadly, classroom teachers who could benefit greatly from the additional options Amendment 1 could provide, have heard the anti-charter message so intensely from their administrators, that it is difficult for them to perceive how Amendment 1 can help both them and their students. My heart goes out to teachers that they would see the full picture.
(4) What are some of the objections to Amendment 1?
- Opponents say that Amendment 1 will take away scarce dollars from our already underfunded public schools. This is not only untrue, but to the great surprise of most, the facts are quite the opposite; because only state dollars follow the child to commission charter schools and the roughly 50% of per-student funding that comes from local property taxes stays behind in the local school system (with one less student for the school system to educate) students attending commission charter schools provide a windfall to local school systems by raising the level of per-student funding for the remaining students in the system. This is the single biggest surprise to those who actually study this issue. Although commission charters would receive more state dollars than traditional schools, the total funding is much less than what traditional schools receive, making commission charters the most efficient public schools in the State.
- Opponents say Amendment 1 eliminates local control and if people don’t like their schools, they should run for the local school board and change things. Unfortunately, this is not only beyond the reach of many, but is meaningless to the single mother of five children whose 2nd grader is falling through the cracks of the traditional school system. In the case of a single mother of five I know who was abandoned by her husband: she is working two jobs to keep the lights on, cannot afford private school, would struggle greatly to homeschool, and is $30,000 upside down on her mortgage and thus cannot move to a place where the schools work for her kids. Can she truly wait until 2014 when her school board Post opens up for election, raise $50,000 to win a school board seat, then personally orchestrate the take-over of 3 other board seats to build a 4 member majority voting block to begin to affect change for her 2nd grader? The challenge to “run for office” is insulting to parents like this mother who do not have the means to run but want meaningful public school options that that have never been allowed.
- Opponents contend that Amendment 1 undermines the democratic process by substituting the will of local elected officials with state-level political appointees. History proves that without an appeals process to overcome the institutional opposition of local school boards, community charter schools will not be available to more than a small percentage of students. By providing a state-level appeal, a 7-person parent board can be elected by 500 parents from a single school to make all of the decisions normally made by a local school board. Compare that level of local control to a 7-person Cobb County school board elected by 630,000 citizens to run 112 schools serving 108,000 students? What provides greater local control to a parent: a charter school authorized by the commission and run by 7 parents at the school level or a county school system where each elected board member answers to 90,000 citizens?
- Opponents say that Amendment 1 is about for-profit businesses gaining access to your tax dollars. Private educational management companies that are sometimes hired by charter governing boards to bring experience and best practices have been demonized by charter opponents. Consider one of the educational management companies operating in Georgia; if the 48 schools it operates in five states are looked at as a single school system, they would be the highest performing public school system in America! Given that these companies are hired and fired at the discretion of the 501(c)(3) charter governing board, there is frankly very little downside to at least giving charter schools the option of bringing in this kind of nationally recognized expertise. Don’t believe the hype by those flatly opposed to Amendment 1.
- Opponents contend that Amendment 1 is really about the State of Georgia seizing control of public education and creating an unneeded parallel education system. In funding commission charter schools well below the funding level of traditional public schools ($6,200 vs. 9,000 per student), the legislature’s intent is to make it financially uncomfortable for charter groups to be approved by the commission. Since the State would prefer local school boards to approve quality charter schools, it has aligned financial incentives to strongly encourage charter groups to work with their local school systems first. The Amendment 1 appeals process is created for strong charters who cannot gain approval from local school boards openly hostile to choice.
- Opponents contend that a state-level appeals process exists today and that Amendment 1 is not needed. Any fair-minded analysis would reveal that NO constitutionally viable appeals process exists today for charter petitioners rejected by local school boards. As outlined in the history paragraph above, given the “exclusive authority” finding of the Georgia Supreme Court, the code section relating to appeals that was overlooked both in the lawsuit and in the Court’s opinion is, by any estimate, constitutionally doomed the moment it is litigated. In my view, the fact that licensed educators and elected officials have trumpeted that a viable appeals process exists is a sad display of what the establishment is willing to say to discredit Amendment 1.
In summary, Amendment 1 offers a choice. It asks Georgia voters to decide if local school boards should have unchecked power or if charter school organizers should have an appeals process at the state-level. If a convicted murderer in Georgia can appeal the decision of a locally elected judge, why is it that charter school groups cannot appeal the decision of a locally elected school board? I encourage you to demand the kind of options among our public schools that we demand in every other facet of our lives. Vote “Yes” on Amendment 1 to energize parents by giving them meaningful choices about their child’s public education.
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