Georgia's Bitter Charter Battle

The fourth in a Prospect series on the 174 initiatives and referendums up for a vote this November.

In March, the Georgia Department of Education released an in-depth report showing that students in the state's charter schools perform worse than those in traditional schools. You might have thought such a conclusion would prompt lawmakers to at least pause on a constitutional amendment creating a new state agency specifically to create new charters. Instead, a week later, the Georgia Senate passed it with the required two-thirds majority. Voters will determine the amendment's fate this November, deciding whether charter schools should be drastically expanded at the expense of the traditional districts.

The amendment fight was heated from the get-go. Georgia has cut around $4 billion in funding for public schools over the last four years. The new agency would cost $430 million—money traditional school advocates say should be going to ease those budget cuts. The state would also have to give more funding per student to these charter schools than it currently gives to traditional schools; the new charter schools will not have a local tax base to draw on. That means more money siphoned away from traditional public schools every year, at a time when they’re still reeling from significant losses.

It’s not as if Georgia lacks charter schools. There are more than 130 in the state. These charters, however, were set up with approval from local school boards. Presumably, that’s a good thing; if the school district can work with a charter school, there’s more likelihood for some shared practices and community dialogue. This measure allows the state commission to create a charter school after the local school district has rejected the proposal. (So much for "local control," which Republicans always like to talk about.) Senate Republicans reject a provision that would have at least barred for-profit charter schools. Georgia could now become a major destination for money-making charters. Their lobbyists may end up with more influence than local school boards when it comes to the state commission's decisions on adding new charter schools.

The state superintendent of schools has spoken out against the measure, as have many school boards. The state PTA, the League of Women Voters, and the state NAACP, among other community groups, have also publicly criticized the bill, and just last week, two Republican lawmakers came out against it. A YouTube video from the Southern Education Foundation featuring two high school students laid out some of the key arguments against the measure:

That doesn’t mean it won’t pass. The pro-charter school movement has been extremely active, as have some corporate forces, in arguing more charters are necessary to combat low performance and fix problems in public schools. When the amendment was still in the legislature, lobbyists spent thousands wooing legislatures, including photos of lawmakers with John Smoltz, the former Braves star pitcher. The vast majority of donations in favor of the measure have come from out-of-state organizations, including a $10,000 check from the Koch brothers' ultra-conservative organization, Americans For Prosperity. (By comparison, all but a handful of donations against the amendment have been from Georgia.)

The polls are hard to judge. The latest from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution showed a narrow margin, with 45 percent of likely voters approving the measure and 42 opposing it. But, as the AJC columnist Jay Bookman notes, that poll asked voters how they felt about the substance of the measure, by asking whether they approved “a special state commission that has the authority to approve charter schools that have not been approved by local school districts.”

That’s not the language on the ballot. The ballot language is more misleading, asking: “Shall the Constitution of Georgia be amended to allow state or local approval of public charter schools upon the request of local communities?” Local approval is already allowed and there’s no mention of the fact that state approval could supersede a local community decision. In July, when voters were read the ballot question and asked how they would vote, 58 percent backed the amendment. (That poll, however, was conducted by supporters.)

This campaign offers a stark look at just how odd the reform argument can get. Here, there have been billions in cuts to public education and lawmakers complain that schools aren’t performing well. So instead of making investments in education—or simply replacing some of the funds taken away—they spend money elsewhere, to create a new, competing system.

It doesn't make sense, but then again, there's no word on whether these new charters would teach logic classes.

 

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