Mike Klein Online

Who’s the Executive in Charge of Georgia Criminal Justice Reform?

Mike Klein

Governor Nathan Deal signed criminal justice reform legislation Wednesday, triggering the most aggressive rebranding of the state’s approach to criminal perpetrators in several decades.  But one question that needs to be resolved is who’s responsible for making sure this all happens?

It sounds like the answer begins with the Special Council on Criminal Justice Reform whose work provided the structure for Georgia’s new law.  Governor Deal signed House Bill 1176 during an upbeat signing ceremony just below the north steps at the State Capitol in Atlanta.

Answering my question after the legislation was signed, the Governor said he would extend the Special Council by executive order, something he has previously discussed.  “We believe we should maybe expand the scope of those who are involved in this process as we go forward.”

(Click here to watch the signing ceremony on the Georgia Public Policy Foundation YouTube site.)

Criminal justice reform is a massive undertaking that will require integration of several agencies within state government and that’s a first step.  It will further cross deep into other public and private sectors such as the courts, local law enforcement and public and private social services.  This will take years to integrate and it will require some kind of way to measure outcomes.

Criminal justice reform is neither conservative nor liberal.  It does not have a political party.  It is widely recognized as essential in Georgia and other states that are re-evaluating how to make certain dangerous people are locked up and non-violent people with substance abuse issues are placed into programs such as courts that emphasize treatment and require accountability.

Georgia spends $1.1 billion per year to lock up some 56,000 inmates. The criminal justice bill jumps to $1.5 billion with parole and probation. The inmate population grows by about 1,000 per year.  Supporters believe reforms that emphasize keeping non-violent people out of prisons could slow the growth rate and save Georgia some $264 million over the next five years.

Programs like the drug court in Hall and Dawson Counties are being heralded as the better idea in Georgia, Texas and many other states with similar reforms.  The northeast Georgia programs are administered by Superior Judge Jason Deal whose father has a pretty good job in state government.  The father has paid attention to his son’s work.

“To listen to the stories, to the lives that have been changed, the families who’ve been reunited, lives that had quite frankly been cast aside by the system that was in place had a tremendous emotional effect on me,” Governor Deal told 100 onlookers.  “I’ve not had anyone who has ever attended the graduation ceremony of a drug court come away saying that they don’t believe there is a better way.  This is the better way.”

The Governor continued, “I would invite those who are skeptics to have that same experience.  Go attend a drug court, a DUI court, a family court, a mental health court.  If you come away believing that it’s better to do it by locking people up I truly don’t think you have paid attention to what we are doing now and certainly I think with this legislation, (we are) giving the opportunity to do more and do it better.”

Deal noted that Supreme Court Chief Justice Carol Hunstein and House Judiciary Chair Rep. Wendell Willard have resumed work on juvenile justice reform and Deal suggested the Special Council will be asked to work on that issue.  An exhaustive juvenile code rewrite passed the House this year but then the bill was stopped because it did not have a fiscal note.

The Governor closed with a message to the news media.  “Many times when we undertake difficult tasks we sometimes feel that the media is our adversary.  That has not been the case in this instance,” Deal said.  “Your effort educating the public on the importance of this undertaking has had tremendous positive effects.  So, thank you.  I hope I can say that more often!”

Several Special  Council members attended including Supreme Court Chief Justice Carol Hunstein, Georgia State Bar Association President Ken Shigley and Douglas County District Attorney David McDade.   House Speaker David Ralston stood alongside Governor Deal during the ceremony.  Lt. Governor Casey Cagle was not there.

(Mike Klein is Editor at the Georgia Public Policy Foundation)

May 2, 2012 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , | Leave a comment

Cherokee Charter Academy: The Perfect Place to Sign House Bill 797

Mike Klein

Cherokee Charter Academy almost never happened.  Last spring it seemed possible – maybe even probable — that Cherokee Charter would never open because of a state Supreme Court decision.  What a difference a year makes.  Governor Nathan Deal will visit the school Thursday morning when he signs legislation to create the structure for a new state charter schools commission.

“We’re very excited that not only is the Governor pro-charter but he is coming to our school to sign House Bill 797,” said Cherokee Charter Principal Vanessa Suarez.  “At the end of the day, all politics aside, we are here for the kids.  We are here for our students that want a choice.”

This signing ceremony could have been done anywhere, including at the State Capitol. Doing it at a charter school that thrived despite constant disapproval by the local school board will send a succinct message:  School choice is a good idea that is consistent with quality local public education.  Perhaps the Cherokee County school board should get on-board.

Georgia will create a new charter schools commission next year if voters statewide approve a constitutional amendment that is on the November ballot.  The new commission would consider but is not required to approve charter school applications only after they are rejected locally.

You can find nearly all the arguments for-and-against state authorization of charter schools in Cherokee County.   A well-regarded school district that spends more than one-half billion dollars per year nonetheless wails publicly about tight budgets.   In doing so, it tries to portray a start-up charter school with a tiny budget as a threat to public school funding.  The start-up serves about 2% of the county’s public school students and it is a long way from being a threat to status quo.

Vanessa Suarez, Principal, Cherokee Charter Academy

The Cherokee County school board has never approved a local charter school application.  It rejected Cherokee Charter Academy three times, including twice last year and again for the 2012 – 2013 school year.  The Academy in Canton opened with about 825 students last August after it received a state charter and state funding authorized by Governor Deal.

Funding is a relative term.   State records indicate state, local and SPLOST funding amounts to $8,749 per pupil in the traditional Cherokee County public schools.  This year Cherokee Charter Academy received $5,000 per pupil in average total funds from all sources.  It does not receive local tax dollars or SPLOST capital expenditure funds.

A Cherokee County school board majority and Supt. Frank R. Petruzielo have repeatedly portrayed this issue as local, and say their concern is about the Cherokee schools.

Then last week the Cherokee board passed a resolution by a 4-2 vote that “requests that voters of the State of Georgia not support the Constitutional Amendment relative to charter schools.”  Now it is about more than Cherokee County; now it is about stopping state charters everywhere.

Carrying the title “Resolution in Support of Quality Public Education,” the slightly longer than one page document is long on rhetoric about “an already underfunded public education system, resulting in overcrowded classrooms, shortened school calendars, insufficient textbooks and other curricular supplies and employee furloughs, with no end in sight” but it fails to recognize that all charter schools are public schools.  Let’s try that once more for those who might be newcomers here:  all charter schools are public schools.

The resolution is wrong and misleading when it tries to create the perception the state could “take and redirect local school tax dollars for the aforementioned purposes,” those purposes being to support state charter schools.

The constitutional amendment legislation stipulates only state dollars would be used to support state charter schools.  No local tax dollars would be redirected to state charter schools.  State funding to local school systems would not be reduced because any student leaves a traditional public school to enroll in a charter school.  Therefore, the resolution is misleading and false.

So to recap: Cherokee Charter opened with 825 students last fall and it received about $5,000 per pupil in total funding from all sources.  All local tax dollars and all SPLOST dollars for those students stayed with the Cherokee County public schools system.  Somehow those two ideas did not make their way into the “Resolution in Support of Quality Public Education.”

Cherokee County is a destination location. It is a nice place to live.  It has jobs.  It has good real estate values.  It has parks.  It has a 74% high school graduation rate, less than 85% claimed by the school district but still better than the 67% statewide average.  So, it has good schools.  This year the district will spend $527 million to educate 38,766 students.  The district has almost as much staff – 2,169 – as it does teachers – 2,343.

This August the traditional school district will expand its STEM and fine arts programs, which Cherokee County board member Michael Geist sees as a response to Cherokee Charter Academy.  “I don’t know if I care too much why they did this.  I’m just glad they did,” said Geist, who was elected to the traditional county board but has two children enrolled at Cherokee Charter Academy.

Geist voted against the constitutional “Quality Public Education” resolution. “It seems like every idea worth investing in gets shot down by the education lobby and the education establishment,” Geist said.  “We don’t even get a chance to really find out if charter schools can work well.”

What a difference a year makes.  Cherokee Charter Academy almost never happened.  This fall the Academy will add eighth grade and enroll 1,000 students.  The Academy was also selected to participate in a middle schools program offered by Cambridge University in England.  This is a long way from not knowing whether your doors would open.

“We have learned the difference between a shock and an aftershock,” said board member Lyn Michaels-Carden.  “A year ago the things that happened to us shocked and stunned us and sometimes we were distraught.  Now because of everything we’ve been through it’s a lot easier to have perspective.  You get to the point where you recognize what’s really important.”

Cherokee Charter seems like a perfect place to sign charter schools commission legislation.

(Mike Klein is Editor at the Georgia Public Policy Foundation)

May 2, 2012 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , | Leave a comment