Voters to Consider Controversial Amendment

Come November, voters will decide the fate of the expansion of state-funded charter schools, but the resolution has a contentious history and how the vote will play out remains to be seen.

If voters approve the proposed constitutional amendment on charter schools passed by the Georgia legislature last month, they will essentially overturn a ruling by the state Supreme Court, which struck down a previous law authorizing the state Georgia Charter Schools Commission to create charter schools and fund them with local tax dollars over the objections of local school boards.

The proposed amendment barely cleared the Georgia General Assembly with a constitutionally mandated two-thirds majority in March but comes with an attached funding mechanism that makes the new system substantially different from the old one.

Under the previous law, the state commission had the authority to overrule local boards of education and grant newly created charter schools a portion of local revenue generated from property taxes. Assuming the amendment passes, the commission will may still override local school boards, but the burden of funding these schools will shift back to the state.

Still, the question of how the state will foot the bill for this additional educational spending, already the largest state expenditure annually, should raise serious concerns for policy makers, said Cynthia Searcy, an assistant professor of public policy at Georgia State University that sits on the Charter Petition Review Committee of the Atlanta Public School System.

She said the legislation will likely become a major issue this coming election season and will split voters along rural versus metro lines.

“I don’t think there is a question that the vote will pit the more rural voters against the urban population,” Searcy said. “Charter schools tend to serve urban populations better anyway. Where you’ll see opposition is the rural districts.”


Political opposition to charter school creation


Charter school legislation has a rich and diverse history of political opposition in the state of Georgia, especially among the various branches of state government during the last year.

During the most recent legislative session, debate over charter school legislation dominated much of the political discourse at the state capitol.

Although Democratic legislators in the state House of Representatives helped reject an early vote to carry the proposed amendment in February, House Republicans eventually mustered enough votes to move forward the resolution to Senate, where it eventually passed in late March following the break of three key Democratic senators.

In the executive branch, Gov. Nathan Deal has publically fought for the state’s authority to commission and locally fund charter schools in the past. Deal even scrounged up millions of dollars in funding for charter schools that were turned down by their local school boards and left orphaned by the abolishment of the state charter school commission.

And, in a statement last month, Deal urged voters to pass HR 1162 next November.

“Approving this amendment will simply restore the process for creating state-charted schools that existed before the state Supreme Court struck down the state’s system for granting charters, and I hope Georgians will cast their vote for protecting and promoting schools that have a strong record of student achievement,” Deal said.


School boards fear potential consequences


Some metro Atlanta school boards worry about the repercussions of the potential passage of the charter school amendment and whether or not they should come out on the issue.

Before the end of the past legislative session, school boards expressed concern that charter schools would draw away otherwise eligible students, leaving districts with less income based upon the state’s annually calculated funding formula based on total enrollment.

And although the updated funding bill specifically declares that no deductions shall be made from state funding to local school districts based on transfers to charter schools, others are left wondering how the state will now pay for its increased educational funding burden.

“What is not clear is where that state money will come from,” Searcy said. “The money that does go to charter schools must come from some other source – from the mixed pool of revenue.”

But for these reasons and others, some local school boards have been weary of what they say regarding charter schools, said Janet Read, the vice chair of the Cherokee County Board of Education.

“We’ve know for a while that we needed to watch our words,” Read said. “A lot of people weren’t happy with us last year. There were rumors last year when we voted to turn down Cherokee Charter that there would be consequences from the legislature.”

Still, that did not stop the Cherokee school board from denying Cherokee Charter Academy its application for the past three years until the elementary through middle school finally appealed to the state board of education last year and received its charter to open its doors in 2011.

The Cherokee board’s reasoning for turning down the academy was based on the idea that there was no cause for opening up a separate, non-traditional charter school, according to Searcy, who said she sat in on the their last hearing.

But because of the board’s public stance against the school, Read said the board was specifically targeted by the local legislative delegation via House Bill 978, which changes how the board is elected and strips both Read and the board’s chair, Mike Chapman, out of their positions through a repositioning of the board’s election posts.

“I think that Mr. Chapman and I were targeted because we’ve been two of the vocal ones and because our terms were up,” Read said. “So this was not a surprise to me. This was really kind of expected.”

But before Gov. Deal signed the bill into law in early April, the law was subject to intense criticism by the media and the school’s accrediting agency, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, which called the bill highly irregular and a threat to the system’s continued success.

“Cherokee County Schools have enjoyed over a decade of success because of the strong and stable leadership of its governance leadership team which includes the Board of Education and Superintendent,” reads their Feb 27 letter. “Any legislation that would disrupt this successful track record would be unfortunate.”


Choosing an alternative model


Other differences that exist between charter schools in general and traditional public schools that may influence why and how voters decide this November.

And funding isn’t the only thing that sometimes differs about charter schools compared to their traditional public school counter parts.

Charter schools may offer services that traditional public schools lack, particularly in urban environments, Searcy said.

Unlike public schools, students seeking to attend charter schools are not granted automatic enrollment. Often, when potential students applying to enroll overflow a school’s seating capacity, schools must rely on a random lottery system to pick select incoming students.

Other differences, which vary from school to school, include the use of uniforms and stricter punishment guidelines, depending on the school’s specific charter.

But funding does help play a role in shaping charter policies.

For example, since Cherokee Charter does not receive local funds, it has had to rely on state money specially allocated from the governor to open its doors and keep them open again for next year.

“Our governor has been very complimentary by helping us secure funding for this year and next school year,” Suarez said. “We do not receive local funds, which are the local tax dollars.”

And that’s led to some rather unique ways of cutting costs to pay the bills.

At Cherokee Charter, parents must dedicate at least 20 hours a year or more performing volunteer work, such as making copies and serving as lunchroom monitors, Suarez said.

However, some parents like Jena Stusak, the mother of a 7-year-old boy with learning abilities that attends Cherokee Charter, say they don’t mind the idea of compulsory volunteer hours.

Stusak said volunteer helps teachers focus on their work in the classroom and with various assignments instead of getting bogged down with additional duties the school couldn’t afford to pay others to do.

Further, she said it gets parents engaged with what their students are learning in class and helps foster a complete learning environment that doesn’t just end when a student comes home.

And that different learning environment is what convinced her to continue to keep her son, Dominic, at Cherokee Charter.

“One of the things that sticks out in my mind is the way they were teaching writing,” Stusak said. “It got them more involved in writing.”

“It got them thinking,” she continued.

Still, Stusak said it’s important to remember that, for all their differences, both charter and traditional public schools have their limitations and drawbacks. “Whether it’s a charter school or it’s a public school, it’s still a school. It’s still a school system,” she said.

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