Crane, Smith support charter school measure

By SARAH FAY CAMPBELL The proposed constitutional amendment that would strengthen the state's ability to establish charter schools passed the Georgia Senate Education and Youth Committee Thursday by a vote of 7-5. The amendment now goes to the Senate Rules Committee, which will decide when House Resolution 1162 makes it to the Senate floor for debate and a vote.
State Senator Mike Crane, R-Newnan, supplied one of the "yes" votes at Thursday's meeting. "It was a very extensive committee meeting," Crane said. There were a number of speakers and a lot of people interested in the legislation, he said. The legislation is the result of a court ruling in 2011 abolishing the Georgia Charter Schools Commission, which was created by the legislature to review and potentially approve charters for schools that were rejected by their local school systems. But the ruling did more than that just abolish the commission. "You get different legal opinions. But one legal opinion was that it removed the state's ability to do any statewide education policy," said State Rep. Lynn Smith, R-Newnan. "That was called into question by a lot of legal minds who said it needed to be clarified." Smith voted for the resolution when it was on the House floor. "It's important that people understand that, essentially, all this does is clarify the state's authority, which I believe is clearly identified in the state constitution," Crane said. The Georgia Constitution states that "the provision of an adequate public education for the citizens shall be a primary obligation of the state of Georgia." Crane believes the Georgia Supreme Court ruling was erroneous -- and it was a 4-3 ruling. Crane believes the trouble with the ruling is that it states several times that local school boards have "exclusive control" over public schools. Those words are not in the state constitution. "That is just fundamentally flawed in respect to the constitution," Crane said. The actual wording on the constitution is "authority," not exclusive authority. The state had already approved a few charter schools -- including Coweta's Odyssey School -- before the Charter Schools Commission was created. Coweta Charter Academy in Senoia was approved by the commission. What likely doomed the commission was not its ability to approve charter schools but the state's ability to hold back a portion of state per-pupil funds from local school systems in order to make up for the local tax funding that was not going to charter school students. Crane said that when it comes to concerns about the local funding, "to some degree I'd have to agree with that, especially because of the way the local school boards are set up as the taxing authority for the local jurisdictions." The constitution says that no school tax or bonded indebtedness can be put in place for special schools without the approval of the voters "in each of the systems affected." "I think it was reasonable what they came up with, where they basically separated that out of this," Crane said. "So for the local system, every time a student either moves out of the state or chooses to go to an alternative school, while they lose the state funding they get to hold on to the local funding." And in that case, "it is difficult to see where they can complain about that. They have a student they don't have to educate, but they get to hang on to all the local tax dollars related to that student." The same provision that would affect local funding was in the first version of the resolution, which didn't pass the House; it was removed in the current version. Not interfering with local funding was important to Smith. She said that was the provision she'd heard the most concerns about. As for how the future charter schools will be funded, Rep. Jan Jones, who sponsored the resolution, is working on the "enabling legislation." "There will be legislation passed this year that will define what the constitutional amendment is about," Smith said. Jones "had to keep reworking the legislation to make sure she got enough votes. So it should allay a lot of concerns that people are having." The charter school process won't be much different than it was in the past, Crane said. Any group of people wanting to start a charter school "is going to first go to the local school board and seek their approval," he said. "Because with their approval they might get some of the additional local funding." But if a school board denies a charter request, "at least they have a secondary option," Crane said. In the midst of the debate, the Georgia Department of Education released a report on charter school performance. The report found that 70 percent of charter schools met "adequate yearly progress" as defined under No Child Left Behind, compared to 73 percent of traditional schools, and that the graduation rate for charter schools was 82 percent, compared to 80.9 percent in traditional schools. "Like any other statistic, it doesn't tell the whole story," Crane said. The report could have been framed saying that charter schools, which have much less funding than traditional schools, "produce nearly the same results," Crane said. But, more importantly, statistics don't measure "how these particular students may have fared if they had stayed in a traditional system. They may be performing much better than they would have been," he said. While he is supportive of charter schools, Crane said that "what is important to me is that kids reach their full, God-given potential." "At the state now, we are mandated, we are constitutionally obligated" to provide education, and "I, as a state officer now, am also obligated to make sure we do everything we can as a state and provide them that opportunity to be all they were designed to be." "A one-size-fits-all education model has proven to be ineffective for an alarmingly large number of young people here in Georgia," he said. There are various statistics on graduation rates, but Crane said that, when looking at rates from freshman to senior, only about 60 percent of entering freshmen tend to graduate. "That means we have almost a 40 percent failure rate," he said. "That can't continue if we expect to attract business, industry, high-tech occupations here," he said. "We have got to do better than that, and continuing to do the same thing does not make sense." Problems with various school boards, including DeKalb and Atlanta, have been in the news lately. "Now, if we think that school boards are the ultimate answer to all our educational problems then we are just sorely misled," Crane said. He's not lumping Coweta's school board with the problematic ones. However, the issue of bad school boards "points to the bigger problem," he said. "Nobody should mind some oversight and some other influence, particularly because the state is such a huge stakeholder in education." Crane said roughly 50 percent of education dollars comes from the state. And "I think it would be unreasonable to ask the state to stand idly by and watch us produce a 60 percent success rate." He doesn't think charter schools are the only answer. "I think we've got a lot of very interesting opportunities, as technology changes, that could really create a very dynamic educational system here in Georgia," Crane said. "We've got a long way to go. It's a long way to the top from 43." Crane said he hates that school boards "seem to be universally against" the charter school legislation. "I hope that they will see that what we are doing in the long run will not negatively impact them. That they'll answer the clarion call and continue to improve what they do to such a degree that they are the school of choice. Which should be their goal anyway."

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