Published Wednesday, November 07, 2012
BY BILL BARROW
ATLANTA (AP) – Georgians have approved a constitutional amendment that would allow a new state board to issue charters for private operators to run independent public schools.
With 94 percent of precincts reporting unofficial results, 1.89 million voters - or 58 percent - supported the proposal. A total of 1.37 million or 42 percent opposed it.
The amendment will allow the state to re-establish a statewide charter commission to consider applications by operators to run schools. Control over charters now rests mostly with local school boards, though operators who are denied can appeal to the state Board of Education.
The measure passed by an even wider margin in Coweta County – 65.85 percent to 34.15 percent.
Andy Geeter, system director for Odyssey Charter School, one of two charter schools in Coweta County not affiliated with the county school system, watched televised results of the vote until almost 11 p.m., when it seemed clear the amendment had passed.
“I’m very happy to see the voters of Georgia are taking a vote for school choice,” Geeter said. “There are going to be more opportunities for all the students of Georgia.”
The new commission will be able to handle appeals on local charter schools. Perhaps more significantly, the commission can directly consider applications by operators who propose the schools. Local boards will not have any say over those applications.
Charter schools are financed with public money but run by private organizations. They generally are not subject to the same rules and regulations as traditional public schools.
Gov. Nathan Deal and school choice advocates pitched the amendment as a way to give Georgia families more educational options, and they echoed that framing as they celebrated late Tuesday night.
"We're very excited," said Mark Peevy of Loganville, a leading charter school advocate. "This puts more power in the hands of parents, and we're going to use it to continue improving all public education in Georgia."
State Superintendent John Barge, one of Deal's fellow Republicans, led educator groups in opposition, saying it would lessen local control and siphon public money away from existing schools. Local charter schools receive money from state and local taxes. The statewide and special schools created by a new commission would be financed with state money.
Several black lawmakers opposed the amendment, as well.
Sen. Vincent Fort, D-Atlanta, accused proponents of using vague ballot language - "Shall the Constitution of Georgia be amended to allow state or local approval of public charter schools upon the request of local communities?" They say it was intended to confuse voters about the real intent of the proposal.
"When the other side is willing to tell lies and then they have the money to spread them, it makes it hard," he said.
Some opponents have filed a lawsuit in Fulton County Superior Court arguing that the amendment should be invalidated because of the language. Proponents say they are confident the legal complaint does not threaten the new law.
Moving forward, Fort said, "We're going to continue to fight to protect all of public education in Georgia."
The returns suggest that the winning margin came largely from the Atlanta metro area, with the rest of the state more divided on the question.
Bert Brantley, a spokesman for the proponents, said that reflects where the demand is for more charter schools.
More rural communities, he said, are happy with their existing schools. "We may not even see charter applications there," he said.
Lawmakers first created a state charter commission in 2008, but the Georgia Supreme Court sided with a group of plaintiffs who argued that the state constitution gives control of K-12 education to local boards. The amendment effectively overrides that decision.
Georgia has about 200 charter schools already, including those created by the first state charter panel. Those schools will not be immediately affected by the outcome.
The Newnan Times-Herald staff also contributed to this story.
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