Charter schools can be good for students who need different kinds of learning environments than traditional public schools offer, local school system leaders say, but their appeal vanishes when local school boards lose any say in how they’re run.
Officials from Dalton Public Schools and Whitfield County Schools said they are drafting resolutions for both their boards of education to pass, stating opposition to a proposal to change Georgia’s state constitution. Voters will face a ballot question in the general election on whether to allow communities to bypass local officials to set up new charter schools by going through a state committee instead.
“We don’t think this is about charters,” said Dalton Superintendent Jim Hawkins. “It’s about what we would say is centralization, moving things to the state level rather than responding locally.”
The ballot question asks, “Shall the Constitution of Georgia be amended to allow the state or local approval of public charter schools upon the request of local communities?”
Until recently, all but a handful of charter schools — schools that are eligible for waivers from some regulations in exchange for going through an approved set of rules designed to help students learn in ways outside the norm — were approved by local school boards first and sent to the state Department of Education for final approval. Like other public schools, charter schools are funded by a combination of local tax dollars and state funding.
A handful of charter schools were created by state officials who bypassed or overruled the local school district, but the Georgia Supreme Court recently ruled that process violated the state Constitution. The amendment to change the Constitution is a reaction to that ruling.
If approved, legislation still in draft form would allow the governor and other local officials to create a seven-member committee of appointed officials who would approve or turn down charter school proposals. Approved charter schools would be state-funded, but at a lower per-student cost than traditional public schools, proponents say.
Mike Peevy, executive director for Families for Better Public Schools, an organization that is for the amendment, said allowing the state to create charter schools would give families more options.
“If parents and community members want to start charter schools and end up with a district that just doesn’t want them to open up, the state has an appeals process where that can happen,” he said. “Almost all charter schools are started by a group of concerned parents, community members — folks like that — so they get a chance to serve.”
The Northwest Georgia College and Career Academy is the only charter school in Whitfield or Murray counties. It opened in 2005 under the direction of the Whitfield Board of Education and a local board of directors. Since then, it has changed purposes several times. The amendment wouldn’t directly affect the Career Academy, but county school Superintendent Danny Hayes said if voters agree to change the Constitution, it will hurt the current public school system. Except in cases where outside grants and donations are provided, charter schools created outside the purview of local school boards would be funded entirely with state dollars. Since the state has cut the funding formula for public schools for nearly 10 years, directing the money elsewhere is sure to mean traditional public schools will get less, he said.
“There’s no more money in that pot,” Hayes said. “As long as you run a dual system at the same time, you’re not saving money.”
State school Superintendent John Barge, who has visited the Career Academy several times, said he opposes the change.
“Until all of our public school students are in school for a full 180-day school year, until essential services like student transportation and student support can return to effective levels, and until teachers regain jobs with full pay for a full school year, we should not redirect one more dollar away from Georgia’s local school districts — much less an additional $430 million in state funds, which is what it would cost to add seven new state charter schools per year over the next five years (the annual average of the Charter Commission that would be revived if the amendment passes),” he said in a press release.
Fred Gould, a local director with the Georgia Association of Educators, called the proposal “a grab for power by the state.” He said he’s particularly concerned about for-profit companies coming in to provide education services, thereby siphoning taxpayer dollars away from public schools and toward private organizations.
No one has said how much they expect individual school districts to lose. Hawkins said the dollar amount would depend on a number of factors, such as how many charter schools are created and where. Gould said his organization is working to educate people on the amendment’s effects.
“As far as how that translates down to the locals, I can’t say exactly,” he said. “It will cause taxes to go up at the local level if local school systems are going to continue to provide the quality of education that our children deserve.”
Peevy said there is legislation in draft that “specifically says that state money going to local districts will not be reduced or harmed in any way.”
“It’s actually written into the law that that won’t happen,” he said, noting the charter schools that could be created under the amendment would be authorized just two-thirds as much money as traditional public schools. Hayes, however, said the students would get two-and-a-half times what traditional public schools receive. The amendment itself doesn’t address funding levels, just whether the state is allowed to create schools without the consent of local school boards.
“I have three kids in our traditional public schools myself, and I am not at all concerned,” Peevy said. “I actually think this (provides) much more local control than that argument (against the amendment). It doesn’t get any more local than parents.”
The legislation Peevy’s organization supports can be viewed online at www.legis.ga.gov by searching for House Resolution 1162 and House Bill 797. Local school officials said they plan to pass resolutions opposing the constitutional amendment at their October meetings.
Shall the Constitution of Georgia be amended to allow state or local approval of public charter schools upon the request of local communities?
All persons desiring to vote in favor of ratifying the proposed amendment shall vote “Yes.” All persons desiring to vote against ratifying the proposed amendment shall vote “No.” If such amendment shall be ratified as provided in said paragraph of the Constitution, it shall become a part of the Constitution of this state.