Georgia's War over Charter Schools Heads to the Ballot

For months, the Georgia Legislature has served as a key battleground for the charter-schools debate. Now the fight goes to the voters, who will ultimately decide the fate of a constitutional amendment to allow "state-chartered" schools over the objection of local school boards.

The measure, which creates a state charter-school commission to approve charters rejected by local school boards, became a major focal point of the legislative session. Wausau Daily Herald broke down the thousands of dollars that lobbyists spent on meals and gifts to woo state lawmakers to their side, which verge on the ridiculous. For instance, the American Federation for Children, advocating for the measure, "paid $75 for frames for photos of state lawmakers with former Braves pitcher John Smoltz." The House passed the measure in March, but it stalled in the Senate. It was only on Monday that four Democrats chose to support the measure, giving it more than the two-thirds it needed. Now advocates and opponents will try to convince voters to support them.
 
Voters can expect a complete bombardment. But like almost all the discussions about charter schools, the debate seems to center on two key questions—are charters inherently more innovative than traditional schools, and where will the funding for them come from?
 
Funding became the central question in the legislative debate. The legislature created a similar commission in 2008, until the state Supreme Court knocked it down as unconstitutional last May, largely because the old measure withheld state aid to school districts and instead sent that money to charter schools to make up for the lack of local tax dollars (The Newnan Times-Herald has a nice recap of the situation).
 
This time around, to get the necessary support in both chambers, authors altered the measure to guarantee that it would not have an impact on local funding. The move got some Democrats behind the bill, but many opponents remain unconvinced. After all, the money has to come from somewhere, and these are lean times for state revenues. Some worry that despite the change to the bill, there's still enough wiggle room in the language to divert funds.
 
The concern about funding connects strongly to suspicions around charter schools more broadly. Senate Republicans killed an amendment that would have required the charters to be nonprofits. That means for-profit schools will compete for state dollars—leaving skeptics worried that traditional public schools could lose out to those trying to make money. Meanwhile, local school boards have significantly less say in the fate of their districts.
 
For many advocates, though, the entire appeal of charters (and school choice) is the free-market approach. From this point of view, regulations and teacher contracts are the things holding traditional schools back. As one senator told Georgia Public Broadcasting, "At the end of the day, we spend $9 billion on education, so if we have to have some for-profits involved in order to improve our academic performance, I don’t think that’s a bad thing.”
 
The trouble is that there's an increasing lack of evidence that charter schools as a whole are really doing things any better than public schools. Ironically, that's particularly true in Georgia, where the state Department of Education came out with an in-depth report last week showing that "the general trend of Georgia charter school performance mirrors the trend of traditional public school performance."
 
Many expected the report's findings would cool down support for the charter measure. Instead, a week after its release, the Senate passed it. In November, we'll see if state voters follow suit.

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