Crane speaks on charter schools, DOT, TSPLOST at town hall

(Editor’s note: This is the second of two articles on a town hall meeting held by State Senator Mike Crane in Senoia Thursday night. It is a followup to coverage presented in Saturday’s edition of the Times-Herald.)
State Senator Mike Crane sees no problem with private companies making money off public money allocated to charter schools.
He also thinks the Georgia Department of Transportation is better than most, but still needs legislative oversight. And, he says he went to Atlanta focusing on the four largest expenditures of state funds – education, health care, transportation and corrections.
Crane, who has just finished his maiden session in the Georgia Senate, spoke and answered questions from constituents at a town hall meeting on Thursday at the Senoia Magistrate Court. The event was sponsored by the Senoia Tea Party Patriots.
Crane responded directly to questions from the audience of about 35. At the request of those present, he promised to look into a couple of issues – including the possibility of the first raises for school bus drivers, teacher assistants and cafeteria staff in several years.
Crane also talked about the upcoming Transportation Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax - TSPLOST vote that would allow regions of the state to be taxed for transportation projects. He urged those present to look at the proposal squarely.
“It is a tax – is it not?” he asked. The money for proposed TSPLOST projects “does not come out of the air,” he said. “It comes out of your pocket.” A vote for TSPLOST “will allow “state government to spend more of your money on transportation,” Crane said.
One good aspect of the concept is that voters will get to decide, he suggested.
Crane said there are “lots of different facets to the tax reform package” that was approved by the legislature this year. The annual car tag tax has been replaced by a fee whenever an automobile title is transferred.
Transactions between two individuals “will now be taxed because of the title transfer fee,” he said. “Overall, it’s good idea. I don’t think our assets should be taxed forever.”
A recurring theme was Crane’s dislike of exemptions in tax procedures. “I could go on and on as far as how we play favorites with the tax code,” he said. “Manipulation of the tax code through exemptions” spoils the overall process, he said.
Crane said the fuel tax that goes to transportation is a good concept. The state gets $1 billion in fuel tax each year. “An interconnected road system is just as beneficial to society as water,” Crane said.
“A fuel tax is a proper way to develop funding for paying for roads,” he postulated.
The charter schools bill approved earlier this year is “a big piece of legislation,” Crane said. The bill calls for a referendum, asking Georgia voters to decide if they want the state to authorize charter schools.
A Georgia Supreme Court ruling last year found local school boards have exclusive control of public education. Crane said that should not be so, since the state provides 50-80 percent of funding for schools.
“The state has always and should always” be concerned with “outcomes and methods” of public schools.
“Should all the state dollars go to fund a system of education or should it go to the students?” he asked. Money has been poured into education with “modest results,” he said.
At the same time, he noted the social challenges facing schools. The decline of the family has created great challenges.
“We’re watching the moral decay of our nation,” Crane said. “We expect bus drivers to maintain order. We expect educators to work miracles.”
He said, “We’ve over regulated education, and we’re seeing the results. I think we are moving away from that... Flexibility is going to help change the way we educate our children.”
Crane described the state’s education system as “monolithic” and said the state should “introduce market forces into education.”
Crane said he is opposed to automatic raises for school employees. “If we had some free market forces in education, maybe they could earn some raises” like other people do, he said.
He said about 60 percent of the state budget goes to public education and noted ESPLOST and lottery dollars also go to schools.
Crane said that he believes – because of his support of charter schools – that he is not seen in a positive light by many Coweta teachers. “They don’t think I’m their ally, I get the impression,” he said.
He said he does, however, see good things in the local schools. In particular, he talked about a visit to Smokey Road Middle School.
“I was very impressed with what I saw at Smokey Road Middle School. They’ve really done a great job. I saw teachers really enjoying what they do,” Crane said.
SRMS has made a great deal of progress because of increased flexibility allowed in Georgia schools in recent years. “Some of that stuff that’s been burdening the schools for so long is gone,” he said.
Crane said other options must be considered. He recalled going from relatively small high school classes to – a few weeks later – college classes with 300 students. He said there are high calibre students in public schools who could be similarly served.
“We have got to think outside the box or we’re going to suffocate our kids,” he said.
He cited the Coweta County School System’s Central Educational Center as a good concept and said Dr. Steve Barker, Coweta’s school superintendent, has been talking about possibilities for virtual learning.
Innovation is important, Crane said. “Coweta’s leading the way in lot of those areas,” he said.
Georgia’s Department of Transportation is “better than most,” should not be given carte blanche, Crane said. He said the size and scope of transportation in Georgia means cost savings and innovation must be a constant consideration.
A couple of people at the town hall expressed concerns about private companies – some from out of state – who run charter schools with and eye toward posting a profit.
“I do not think it’s crime for the operator of a school to make a profit,” Crane said. He said numerous state agencies contract with private companies for services – and those companies make a profit.
“Why should we be against that?” he asked, particularly if charter schools can produce the same or better results.
Crane said one of the issues in passing legislation is “opening doors” to something that will eventually prove worrisome. “Are we opening door that’s going to be a problem down the road?” he asked.
He said he voted against a bill that would have allowed the Teacher Retirement System to invest up to five percent of its holdings in less conservative investments than in the past. He said the concept was a dangerous one – in part because “it was opening the door” to larger investments of that type.
Crane was asked about parimutuel betting. He said he is opposed to the state’s monopoly on gambling. He also said “using gambling to fund government is fundamentally flawed.”
One of the few questions he sidestepped was on a federal issue – the admission of Puerto Rico as the 51st state. “What I think about it’s kind of irrelevant,” Crane said. “It will be interesting to watch what happens with that.”
He then said he wants to see Georgia be the very best state it can be. “Somebody’s got to be number one,” he said.
“Why can’t it be us?”

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