Bill would allow parents to turn schools to charter schools

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ATLANTA — Many state leaders, including Gov. Nathan Deal and state school Superintendent John Barge, say they expect – or at least hope for – a relatively quiet legislative session on education issues. But an idea from an Atlanta Republican could upset those plans.

Rep. Edward Lindsey plans to push a bill that would allow parents in a public school to vote whether their campus should be converted into an independent charter school. Lindsey promises that his bill also would allow either parents or teachers to hold referenda on whether a school’s administration should be replaced.

He said Friday that his initial draft, which he has not yet filed, would leave any final decisions to local school boards.

The General Assembly convenes Monday.

So-called “parent-trigger” bills are the latest front in the burgeoning school-choice movement. Twenty state legislatures have considered the idea, and seven states have adopted some version of the law.

The issue is often hotly contested in statehouses, with fierce opposition from teachers associations. Georgia teachers groups have already signaled their opposition. The fiercest school-choice advocates, meanwhile, could push to make the votes binding, rather than leave changes up to school boards. That could leave Lindsey in the middle.

A hotly contested fight would come on the heels of last year’s kerfuffle over a constitutional amendment to expand the state’s authority to issues charters. That idea was enacted with 58 percent support among voters in the November general election.

Lindsey said that margin was a message: “The status quo is morally and economically unacceptable.”

At the same time, he framed his trigger bill as a nuanced approach that isn’t intended to replicate last year’s intense fight.

House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams, D-Atlanta, wouldn’t dismiss the proposal outright, but expressed concerns. “The ethos is good, which is to increase engagement” from parents, teachers and the community. But, she added, “Charter schools are not a panacea. ... The devil is always in the details.”

And she warned against reading too much into the results of the November charter amendment vote.

Abrams’ caucus, which includes just 60 of the House’s 180 members, often aligns with teachers’ lobby.

Lindsey, whose position as majority whip makes him the No. 4-ranking House Republican, was insistent that school boards should have the final say over the charters or any job action on principals. Asked whether there should be an appeal to the state, Lindsey said no.

Several other states make the parent vote binding.

That detail is an echo of the 2012 charter debate. Charter schools were already allowed in Georgia, but local school boards mostly controlled whether to grant charters for independent schools. The new amendment reaffirms state authority to override local denials and allows certain charter applicants to bypass local officials altogether.

Another provision is more sweeping than in other states: Lindsey wants his plan to apply at all schools. Several states allow the triggers only in schools that are failing to meet certain performance criteria.

Deal has not unveiled his session agenda. Deal and House Speaker David Ralston have said in recent interviews that they want to see recent education changes – the new charter process, curriculum changes, teacher evaluation changes – take full effect before pursuing more overhauls.

That doesn’t mean they would block Lindsey’s proposal, but it could mean that the representative may have to build momentum for the idea without them.

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