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.
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.