Whether they vote absentee or in person, or vote early or go to their precincts on Election Day, all Georgia voters will have the opportunity to say “yes” or “no” to amending our state constitution. The words seem harmless enough to those of us not well-versed in General Assembly jargon: Shall the Constitution of Georgia be amended to allow state or local approval of public charter schools upon the request of local communities?
However, these words are anything but harmless and the best answer for our students and our communities is “no!” Defeating this referendum will retain local control of education. Your locally elected board of education will continue to decide who can spend your tax dollars to operate schools in your county. It just makes sense. Local voters determine who is on the local board. Local students. Local dollars. Local control.
IF THIS MEASURE is approved by the voters, a small, politically appointed state commission will be empowered to authorize new schools within any school system. So even though they are not elected, the commission can authorize schools within your system and use your tax dollars for funding – all without your approval. If you do not like the commission’s actions, voting them out is not an option. There is no accountability.
Amid ongoing budget cuts that have yielded shorter school years; larger class sizes; teacher layoffs and furloughs; and the elimination of athletic, art, music and foreign language programs; voters must have the wisdom to vote “no.” Georgia is not able to fund the charter schools or traditional public schools already in existence. Can Georgia afford to create a new school system controlled by a nonelected commission? Does Georgia need dual school systems? Do we need to expand state government?
IN ADDITION to the deceptive ballot wording, the issue has been further distorted by those who want to pose this as a referendum on charter schools. Georgia currently has 200 charter schools, and more are on the way. This provides sufficient evidence that the current law allowing local boards of education to authorize charter schools within their systems is alive and well. If locally elected boards can adequately provide a service, it should be left at the local level. Do we really want to increase the size of our tax-funded bureaucracy in Atlanta?
Also adding to the confusion are those who attempt to frame this as a school choice issue. Parents currently have choices: magnet, public, private, home and charter schools. Surely parents seeking any additional choices can work within our communities rather than sacrifice local control of our school systems and our tax dollars. Should a nonelected group in Atlanta make our local decisions?
MENTION ALSO must be made of the critics who use their disapproval of public schools to justify support of the proposed amendment. Suffice it to say, education in any venue is in continual need of improvement. But generating another expensive layer of state bureaucracy, creating a politically appointed commission with no accountability and establishing dual school systems during a time of painful budget cuts is not the path to improvement.
Considering the challenges Georgia’s public and charter schools currently face because of having less money with more students to educate, voters must wonder why anyone would support this measure at this time. Motivation is apparent when you follow the money.
According to recently filed campaign disclosure reports, one of the wealthiest groups promoting passage of the state-created charter schools amendment has received more than 95 percent of its contributions from companies that make their money by operating charter schools and out-of-state sources – at least $466,000 of the $486,750 so far. While our economy may have benefitted from their efforts to eliminate local control, it is unfortunate that their concerned dollars have not been used in classrooms across Georgia during this budget-cut era.
THIS IS NOT to say that out-of-state companies should not be allowed to operate charter schools in Georgia. Under the existing law, those wishing to establish and operate charter schools must apply to the local board of education. If the local board rejects an application, the denial can be appealed to the state Board of Education, which makes the final decision. It seems logical for all parties to agree at the local level and only rely on state decisions if an appeal is necessary. This is especially important in light of the fact that local schools – regardless of who authorizes and operates them – will be funded with local dollars. Your dollars.
Please vote “no” on this proposed amendment and encourage other Georgians to vote “no!”
(The writer is a retired Georgia teacher and athletic director, and a former president of the Professional Association of Georgia Educators.)