Georgia House rejects charter school amendment

 

ATLANTA — The Georgia House rejected a change to the state constitution Wednesday that would give the General Assembly the power to create new charter schools, a rebuke for Republican leaders.

The 110-62 vote in favor of the amendment fell 10 votes short of the two-thirds majority needed to alter the state constitution. The amendment was supposed to end the legal uncertainty created by a recent state Supreme Court ruling that found a state commission that created a dozen charter schools was unconstitutional because it authorized the schools without the consent of local school boards.

The ruling did not affect charter schools authorized by local officials.

Republican leaders said they will eventually take another vote on the issue. Constitutional amendments require a two-thirds vote of approval from House and Senate lawmakers. They must also be approved by voters.

“I can assure you this — we’re not done,” said Republican Rep. Jan Jones, the bill sponsor and the second-highest ranking House member.

Before the vote, Jones told lawmakers that the change to the constitution would make clear that the Legislature — and not just local authorities — can set education policy and create schools. She said history shows charter schools perform best and grow when local officials are not the only people who can create them.

“Georgia would have another tool to give students learning opportunities which cannot always be offered within attendance lines,” Jones said, referring to existing school districts. “I see it as a way for the state to be able to fill in the gaps.”

Many opponents said they were concerned that creating new schools would drain already scarce tax funding from existing public schools. In a concession, Jones deleted a provision that would have allowed the state to fund the charter schools with money that could have gone to local school districts.

Although Georgia has a formula that is supposed to set state spending on education, lawmakers have underfunded public schools by around $1 billion dollars in recent years. Opponents of the amendment seized on that issue during an hours-long debate on the House floor.

“When are we going to fund our traditional public schools?” said Rep. David Wilkerson, a Democrat. “When will we make that same commitment?”

Jones and other supporters have never explained exactly how new charter schools would be funded. She promised her colleagues on the floor that existing school districts would not suffer cuts in state funding because of new charter schools.

As a next step, Jones said she may write legislation to fund those charter schools that House lawmakers could view side-by-side her amendment before voting on the issue again. Jones said lawmakers believe it might be possible to comply with the Supreme Court’s ruling without changing the state constitution.

Rep. Stacey Abrams, the Democratic minority leader, had opposed the bill in part because of funding questions.

“It’s a math problem,” Abrams said. “We don’t have enough money. And every time you take from the pot, we don’t put money back in the pot. So somebody’s going to lose.”

The vote broke up typical party alliances.

For example, some rural Republicans opposed the measure because they were concerned it could sap funding for rural school districts.

“I believe in local control,” said Republican Rep. Jason Spencer, whose district in southeast Georgia reaches near the Florida border. “I was concerned this would essentially shunt money from a rural system to another system.”

Democratic Rep. Alisha Thomas Morgan supported the amendment even though the leaders of her party opposed it.

Morgan asked lawmakers to support charters because she said poor parents stuck with low-performing school for their children cannot afford to move elsewhere or send their children to private schools. She and her husband are involved in a charter school.

“What about the kid who can’t move? What about the parents who can’t run against their school board to get the changes that they need?” Morgan said.

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