Published Friday, October 19, 2012

Charter amendment facts differ from campaign rhetoric

By Walter C. Jones

Morris News Service

ATLANTA – Of the two constitutional amendments on this fall's ballot, the one dealing with charter schools has generated the most attention and confusion.

Here are the most contentious issues and what each side says about them:

Wording – The description on the ballot angers opponents. The committee of senior state officials that came up with it listed the goals of the amendment, namely more parental choice and local control, without evaluating whether the amendment would actually meet those goals. 

When it talks about increased local control, it means that each charter school would be governed by its own board rather than a county or city school board.

Opponents argue the amendment would lead to less local control because it would empower a panel of state appointees to grant operating charters to schools started by private individuals over the objections of the local board of education.

Need – Supporters say it's needed to provide another route to creating charter schools when local boards stubbornly block them for political reasons. For instance, local boards approved just two charters in 2008 and denied 25.

More charter schools result in more options for families, according to House Speaker Pro Tempore Jan Jones, R-Milton, the legislative sponsor of the amendment.

"I happen to trust parents in terms of what's best for their students," she said.

Opponents say a local school board is more responsive to parents and voters than appointees of the governor. They also note that local boards can convert traditional schools to charter schools, but conversions don't offer parents any choice because attendance zones still apply while they don't with start-up charters.

Money – Legislation passed to put this amendment into action sets a funding formula for state-approved charter schools that tracks the state funding for traditional schools. That bill provides a slightly larger allocation per student to partly make up for the absence of any local funds that traditional schools get. 

Critics say the funding is not fair and warn that it will draw state money away from what would otherwise go to traditional schools.

State Superintendent of Schools John Barge said he opposes the amendment because granting seven state charters per year would require $430 million over the next five years.

"Until all of our public school students are in school for a full 180-day school year, until essential services like student transportation and student support can return to effective levels, and until teachers regain jobs with full pay for a full school year, we should not redirect one more dollar away from Georgia's local school districts much less an additional $430 million in state funds," he said.

David Sjoquist, an economics professor at Georgia State University, has been advising and observing lawmakers dealing with financial matters for his whole career. He said he doesn't expect the legislature to come up with new money for charter schools on top of what's already budgeted for public education.

"In this current fiscal environment, no. If this were the booming '90s, yeah, probably," he said. "I don't think that the state's going to pony up for other programs any additional money."

Jones, though, dismisses that concern, noting that the legislature came up with new money this year for the existing state charter schools, and they put no strain on local property taxes.

"They just don't want these," she said of opponents. "It has nothing to do with funding."

Administration – Supporters like the Georgia Chamber of Commerce say the flexibility of a school controlled by a unique charter rather than the blanket rules of a state or local school board is what allows for creativity needed to overcome the nation's third-worst dropout rate.

"Most of the challenges we see in local systems is from the bureaucracy that gets built up in the (local board's) central office," said Mark Peevy, the former director of the commission that reviewed state charter applications before the Georgia Supreme Court struck down as unconstitutional the law creating it. The amendment on the ballot is to make it constitutional.

Peevy is managing the campaign, largely funded by out-of-state donors, to win support of the amendment. He rejects opponents' claims that it will lead to a duplicate scheme of public schools.

But Thomas Lauth, dean of the University of Georgia Political Science Department and an expert on the state's budget, sides with the opponents. What may seem like relaxed regulation and oversight now has a tendency to grow more complex in government as politicians react with new rules to address every crisis that pops up.

"Will charter schools develop these kinds of regulations? I'd be surprised that they didn't," he said.

Re-segregation – Some of the harshest accusations against the amendment is that it will lead to racial segregation, creating charter schools that are essentially taxpayer-funded "private schools." The Georgia chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People is among the groups opposing the amendment.

Richmond County School Board Member Barbara Pulliam said, "The children who will suffer the most is low-income children, black children and handicapped children."

But the current, state-approved charter schools have 52 percent of their students from poor enough families to qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, and 29 percent of their students are black.

As public schools, charter schools can't discrimination and must accept all students regardless of race or handicap.

Still, there could be a split with the most committed parents taking their children out of traditional schools, says Peevy, but that competition could spark traditional schools to improve.

"If I'm an educator and my good kids are leaving, shouldn't you want to know why?" he said. "I've run a number of businesses over the years. If my good customers are leaving, I have to ask why."

Performance – Opponents say there's no reason for state-approved charter schools because statistics show their students on average don't perform significantly better than the statewide average in traditional schools. But a closer look shows start-up charter schools do perform better than traditional schools in the same district.

Even if they aren't better, shouldn't parents have a say in their children's education, Jones says.

"I see it as no different from any other educational option we offer to students," she said.

Tax shift – Since traditional schools are funded as much as 60 percent with local money and state-approved charter schools will get all of theirs from the state, the amendment sets in motion a shift in taxes. It means that the charters' board members won't have to face taxpayers when they run for re-election and will instead look to Atlanta.

The people spending the money won't be the people appropriating the money, a situation similar to healthcare where patients and doctors have an incentive to spend more to maximize quality and insurance companies seek to prevent inflated spending, notes Lauth. It's likely that charter boards will not only have less incentive to be frugal because they're spending someone else's money and will want to make sure they get "their share" but they will also be inclined to spend all of what they get to maintain their funding level in future years.

"There is always that kind of issue with funding of government agencies," he said.

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