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Georgia Charter Schools: Entrenched Status Quo Won Out Over Enlightenment

Mike Klein

Two weeks ago hope and change seemed possible.  Two thousand students, parents and start-up charter school supporters gathered on a sunny winter morning outside the State Capitol to rally on behalf of the principle that equal opportunity begins in school.  Now we know that too few inside the great stone building cared to hear their message.  Entrenched status quo has won out over enlightenment.

On Wednesday the state House rejected HR 1162 which sought to place a constitutional amendment question on the November ballot that would ask voters:  “Shall the Constitution of Georgia be amended to allow state or local approval of public charter schools upon the request of local communities?”  The measure fell ten votes short of the 120 two-thirds majority it needed.

Georgia is precariously close to earning a reputation – if it has not already earned that onerous reputation – as a state that prefers education entitlement to innovation.

The establishment of charter schools – as one vehicle to improve education everywhere, for all kids –was forcefully championed by former President Bill Clinton.  During the Clinton administration charters grew from literally just a handful to thousands nationwide.  And whatever else you might think about President Barack Obama, his administration has been an equally forceful supporter of charter schools.

Georgia has 1.65 million public school students.  Fewer than 30,000 attend start-up charter schools.  Fewer than 4 percent attend any charter school.  Whatever threat charter schools pose to traditional public education, it is hard to imagine that their success would topple the existing business.

And isn’t that what this is really all about, the public money of public education.   Public education spending — K-12 and higher education — accounts for more than half of the state’s $18.6 billion budget.  Local property tax dollars add billions more dollars to public education spending.   Money = control.  Control = power.  Nobody in power willingly cedes power.  It is a rule of politics and war:  Never cede power or surrender territory.

Therefore, we have wealthy public school districts, whose superintendents earn hundreds of thousands of dollars per year, arguing that the establishment of a few start-up charter schools constitutes a threat to the financial monopoly that controls public education.  The monopoly is a partnership of convenience between school boards, teacher organizations and politicians who support status quo.

At least temporarily, they have won.  What now?  One of the bill sponsors moved to reconsider the motion, so that means the House will have at least one more chance to reverse course.

Start-up charter school supporters, thousands of families, Governor Nathan Deal’s office and others with a dog in this fight have worked on the constitutional amendment strategy since May when the Georgia Supreme Court overturned the state charter schools commission.  Now they have only whatever time remains in the current General Assembly, probably two months, to address this problem.

The 2008 Legislature was correct when it created the state charter schools commission as an alternate authorizer after local school boards reject charter school applications.  The Supreme Court was wrong.  And the 2012 Legislature, to date, is wrong to reject the constitutional amendment option that would enable voters to decide the question.

(Update:  Thursday morning the House voted 114 – 49 to reconsider which means HR 1162 will receive a second vote.)

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

February 9, 2012 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Charter Schools Amendment Magic Number: 120 Votes

Mike Klein

Legislation that would ask voters to decide whether the state or local boards of education should be able to authorize start-up charter schools moved out of the House education committee Thursday by a 15-to-6 vote.  The next stop is an uncertain future before the full House where it needs two-thirds approval by members voting on the question.  With 180 members, the magic number is 120.

Thursday’s committee vote approved a constitutional amendment ballot question that asks voters to reinstate an alternate authorizer for start-up charter schools; in this case, the state itself.  The state had the authority under a commission created by the 2008 Legislature.

But several local school boards sued and the Supreme Court overturned the commission last May.   Charter supporters almost immediately began working a new legislative approach that became HR 1162.

“I think this is a good bill,” House Speaker Pro Tem Jan Jones said after she described revisions made to HR 1162 as late as Thursday morning.  “The most requested change was that we not put into the state Constitution how special schools could be funded, “Jones said.  “The second most requested change was that we remove the clause that said for the purpose of raising student achievement.”

The most significant revisions from an earlier version are contained in Section 3.  The version approved in committee states, “Special schools may include charter schools; provided, however, that special schools shall only be public schools.”  The previous sentence said:  “Special schools may include but are not limited to, schools for the deaf and the blind, special school districts for incarcerated juveniles, any type of charter schools, vocational schools, and schools that offer virtual instruction; provided, however that special schools shall be only public schools.”

The version approved Thursday also specifies that, “The state is authorized to expend funds for the support and maintenance of special schools in such amount and manner as provided by law.”

House and Senate passage – with two-thirds super majorities in both chambers —  would result in this question being placed on the November ballot: “Shall the Constitution of Georgia be amended to allow state or local approval of public charter schools upon the request of local communities.”

The proposed ballot question that was debated in committee last week said, “Shall the Constitution of Georgia be amended for the purpose of raising student achievement by allowing state and local approval of public charter schools upon the request of local communities.”  Jones said ballot question changes were made after a request from the Democratic caucus.

Atlanta Democrat Margaret Kaiser supported the resolution.  “I had a wonderful conversation with Michael Lomax who is president of the United Negro College Fund.  What he said is that we often let the perfect ruin the good,” said Kaiser, who said she’s had the “good fortune” to have her children attend a locally authorized charter school.  “So what we are doing here is it perfect?  No.  Or what the local school systems (want)?   It’s not perfect but we have a good opportunity to allow for an alternate authorizer.”

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

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

Will Parents or Politicians Decide Georgia Charter Schools Future?

Mike Klein

Last week’s State Capitol hearing about whether voters should be allowed to decide school choice in Georgia had nearly concluded when this final question was posed:  In the event that no constitutional amendment is passed, and no other action is taken by the General Assembly, would the state be unable to intervene in any local school board decisions that are deemed to be harmful to children?

The answer in a moment, but first here is some perspective.  Georgia thought it decided one aspect of school choice four years ago when the General Assembly created a charter schools commission, but last spring the state Supreme Court ruled the commission unconstitutional in a 4-to-3 opinion.  That vote has placed literally thousands of students in jeopardy; they could lose their charter schools.

Georgia Cyber Academy is the state’s largest blended learning charter; it has 10,000 students who live in all but two of the state’s 159 counties.  In theory, Georgia Cyber could be forced to apply for individual charters from every county.  Currently, the Cyber Academy is operating as a state special school.

Ivy Preparatory Academy recently had its 2012 charter request rejected by the Gwinnett County local board.  The Fulton County local school board rejected Fulton Science Academy, which received a 2011 National Blue Ribbon School Award from the U.S. Department of Department of Education.   Ivy Prep and Fulton Science would need state special school charters to open again next fall.

House Speaker Pro Tem Jan Jones

House Resolution 1162 seeks to reinstate the state’s ability to authorize charter schools, and it would also create a vehicle to direct state funds to support those students.  The chief sponsor for HR 1162 is House Speaker Pro Tem Jan Jones, who also was chief sponsor of the charter school bill four years ago.

Last Thursday Jones told a near overflow committee hearing room that the state has 29,000 students in startup charter schools, a pittance among the 1.6 million total public school pupils statewide.  “To say we want that kind of framework is simply not to be in support of charter schools,” Jones said.  Click here to view the House TV video archive.

The proposed constitutional amendment has adamant supporters and opponents.  Supporters must gain two-thirds approval in both the Senate and House to get the amendment onto the November ballot.  Opponents can prevail if HR 1162 comes up just one vote shy in the Senate or House, meaning voters would not get to decide this school choice question in Georgia.

As to the question that began this discussion – what might happen if no action is taken – here was the powerful response from House Majority Whip Ed Lindsey who also is a co-sponsor of HR 1162:

“Quite frankly, we worked very hard with a lot of legal scholars who said (charter schools commission legislation) was constitutional.   Three justices agreed with us and one of them wrote a damn fine 75-page minority decision that I ask all of you to read,” Lindsey said.

“The fact of the matter is, what’s contained in that decision needs to make anyone who is concerned about any of the state reform packages that we’ve passed, or any of these state initiatives that we have, including teacher pay scales and everything else, it better give you pause because the language is expansive.  The language does say that basically our job is to write a check and shut up, and I’m not even sure that we should be writing a check.

“You may have some very distinguished attorneys out there who say, oh, it’s not that broad, it only applies narrowly.  Well, folks, I’m here to tell you, we had an awful lot of good legal scholars who told us four years ago that HB 881 was perfectly constitutional.

House Majority Whip Ed Lindsey

“The best way not to have to deal with that issue is to pass this constitutional amendment.  I’ve had some folks tell me, well, let’s just pass legislation and try to fix what the Supreme Court says.  Well, here’s the problem.  You’re going to end up with three more years of litigation before the case gets back to the Supreme Court and then we find out again,” Lindsey said.

“And in that meantime, we’re going to spend three years with different organizations around the state, different parents around the state not certain whether the charter school they are sending their children to is constitutional in terms of the funding as opposed to clearing that up right now.

“I’ve been a litigator for 27 years.  This is a piece of advice I give to all my clients.  The best lawsuit is one that we don’t have to file because we come up with some a resolution to avoid a case.  You’re only in court because you have no other alternative,” Lindsey said.

Lindsey held up the HR 1162 resolution.  “This or some version that we come up with because we work our way through it together, is the alternative to paying a lot of lawyers on both sides a lot of money and leaving children and their parents uncertain for three years.  To do the alternative is, my opinion, irresponsible.”

Organizations that testified in favor of HR 1162 include the Council for an Educated Georgia, Georgia Chamber of Commerce, 100 Dads, Georgia Charter Schools Association, and the Georgia chapter of the Students First organization.  Organizations that opposed the bill include the Professional Association of Georgia Educators, Georgia School Boards Association, Georgia School Superintendents Association, and the Georgia Education Coalition.

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

January 30, 2012 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment