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Will the Georgia charter ballot amendment bring about local control or state control?

With the HR 1162 charter school amendment on the November 2012 ballot, the language on the ballot is misleading and where will the funds come from, but from HB 797.

In November 2012, voters will vote for HR 1162 to bypass the GA Supreme Court ruling and reestablish the Georgia Charter School Commission (GCSC) again.

The first proposal for this HR 1162 voter ballot read “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?”

Currently the November 2012 ballot reads as “Provides for improving student achievement and parental involvement through more public charter school options.”  Also “Shall the Constitution of Georgia be amended to allow state or local approval of public charter schools upon the request of local communities?”  The language is misleading, since no where in HR 1162 does it say that charters will improve student achievement or increase parental involvement; only allow the GCSC to create charters. 

A March 2012 poll, released by the Georgia Charter Schools Association conducted by McLaughlin & Associates; showed that out of 600 polled:  38% would vote yes for HR 1162, 20% would vote probably for HR 1162, 23% said they would vote no, and 19% were undecided.

If HR 1162 is voted yes in November 2012, HB 797 will accompany and take effect with HR 1162.

HB 797 allows a state approval mechanism for charters, when local communities request them.  Currently, charters approved by the state get half of funds that other public schools get, but HB 797 would set forth a new funding formula for charters, with the GCSC to review the process of charter petitions to meet state education measurement goals.

In May 2012, Gov. Nathan Deal signed HB 797 at Cherokee Charter Academy, and Deal expects to give $8 million in funding to help charter schools in fall of 2012.  Deal was given the 2012 Champion for Charters Award, during the signing with 50 legislators.  HB 797 provides the establishment of a state charter commission for state-created charters; and if HR 1162 is approved by voters in November 2012, will be authorized state funding.

Deal said, “Without additional funding, these charter schools would be forced to operate on approximately one-half of the funds that other public schools receive.”  “It will not in effect take away on a county by county basis, dollar for dollar money from a county that has a charter school located in it.”  “House Bill 797 clearly states that local school districts will not miss out on funding because a charter school operates in their area.”

Yet, where did this $8 million come from to fund charters and could those funds have gone to other public schools?

John Barge, Georgia School Superintendent elected in 2010, supports charter schools as part of a broad educational options to students, but he “cannot support the creation of a new and costly state bureaucracy that takes away local control of schools and unnecessarily duplicates the good work already being done by local districts, the Georgia Department of Education, and the state Board of Education."

Barge went further by asking, "What's more, this constitutional amendment would direct taxpayer dollars into the pockets of out-of-state, for-profit charter school companies whose schools perform no better than traditional public schools and locally approved charter schools (and worse, in some cases)."

So, if charters do not outperform public schools, why fund a new bureaucracy like GCSC, which is elected by the governor and not by local taxpayers, like local school boards?

Other than Barge, the Barrow County Board of Education Superintendent, Wanda Creel, opposes the ballot amendment of HR 1162.  “Traditionally, the local board of education has served as the voice of the community and been accountable to its citizens as it pertains to public education,” yet “This proposed amendment would fundamentally alter that relationship by allowing public charter schools to be created that would exist outside of the board’s purview while simultaneously receiving tax funds that would otherwise go to the established public schools of the community. Such a change, whatever the pros and cons, is truly monumental in scope.”

For 2012, Georgia has cut $1 billion in education funding.

Tim Callahan, spokesman for the Professional Association of Georgia Educators (PAGE) said, “The people who are putting this constitutional amendment on the ballot are trying to do...a run-around the Supreme Court ruling.”  “Our state is very strapped in terms of funding...We have cut by over $2 billion the education budge over the past eight years or so, and we have a funding formula that dates back to 1985 (and) has not been updated for inflation.”

Georgia government will provide twice as much per student in special state charters, than the typical public student under the new spending formula by Deal and HB 797.

Herb Garrett, executive director of Georgia State Superintendents Association said, funding per-capita of virtual school students get twice as much, as public funding, more than $5,000.  A typical 5th grader in a public school will get less than $3,000 in state tax dollars, while a state-approved special charter will get nearly $7,000.

Tony Roberts, president of Georgia Charter Schools Association, said that public schools get more per student by local tax dollars.  Roberts said, “The additional dollars in the (House Bill) 797 funding formula are intended to partially offset the loss of local dollars when a charter application is denied by a school board.”  Adding that if we count local tax dollars, a public school gets about $9,700 per student.

If Georgia voters approve HR 1162, the GCSC commission would create more state special charter schools, with members independent of the Georgia Department of Education (GADOE) and local school boards, appointed by the governor or elected state officials.  How is this local control for parents and voters?  Garrett said “This funding mechanism enacted as result of the passage of HB 797 will still be used to determine how much extra state money will be needed to support state special charter schools.”

Yet diverting state tax dollars and cutting public school funds by billions, shows special charter schools do cost public schools, indirectly.  Most schools are funded by a combination of federal, state, charity nonprofit organizations, and local tax dollars; and if the federal and state make cuts, then schools cut services that affects students performance.

Garrett said, “Larger class sizes, teacher furloughs and heavily-amended school calendars have been the result of those greatly reduced state dollars in recent years, and that trend appears likely to continue as a result of these kinds of funding decisions.”

Roberts  said, “Gov. Nathan Deal has called for more budget cuts in state government, but none of those new cuts will come in education.  And local school systems can collect sales taxes to help pay for construction costs, while special charter schools cannot.”

The Athens group, EmpowerED Georgia and founder Matt Jones said he, found for a decade the Georgia government, “has cut funding for Georgia public schools by about 24 percent per pupil.  But at the same time, legislators have piled on more unfunded mandates.”

In Toombs County, Jones said “the cumulative funding cutbacks forced the county school superintendent to serve as the high school principal for half a year, and the school board was forced to cut 20 days off the school year.”  “What you have seen in the last decade is a shift...A decade ago, the state provided more than half the money to pay for Georgia children’s education; now it’s about 38 percent.”

Both local boards and the state already create charter schools.  Bertis Downs, a supporter of EmpowerED Georgia said “if voters approve the amendment, it seems likely that Georgia will see a flood of charter schools started by for-profit educational companies looking for profits.”

Jones found that the “Backers of the amendment will say, “It’s about the children,” but it’s not...It’s about the money.”

Some of those financial backers of HR 1162 are not Georgia residents.  Families for Better Public Schools got $486,750, 96% from out of state donors, like Alice Walton, a Wal-Mart heiress, “politically well-connected law firms and for-profit companies that are operating charter schools in Georgia.”  If local Georgians want and vote for charters, then local residents that pay local property taxes should donate to HR 1162.

Georgia Senator Mike Crane said local school board should not have full control of the public education, since Georgia government provides 50-80% of the school system funding.  Why “Should all the state dollars go to fund a system of education or should it go to the students?”

Crane believes the “monolithic” Georgia education state system and should be “introduce market forces into education.”  Where there are no automatic raises for school employees or teachers, and “If we had some free market forces in education, maybe they could earn some raises?”

Crane said 60% of the GA budget goes to public education with “ESPLOST and lottery dollars also go to schools.”

Currently, charters are approved by local school boards and the GA Board of Education, and get local and/or state funds.  State-approved special charter schools are approved by the GCSC, and some local school boards have rejected the request of new charters and to not get local tax dollars.

Since 1995, local school boards have created charters, but some school districts have been skeptical of competition for students and tax dollars.  The GCSC was created in 2008, after 2007 had 26 petitions submitted to local school boards, and 26 were denied.

Yet the GADOE 2007-08 Annual Reports on Georgia charters, showed in 2008, “17 new charter schools opened their doors, the largest annual increase in operational charter schools since the the Charter Schools Act was signed into law in 1993.”  From 2007-08, 31 new charters were approved and opened by local boards.

The GCSC, made 75% of the time, the same decision that the local board did.  The GCSC only approved 25% of all charter petitions, even if those same charters did not go before the local school boards, but instead the GCSC.  Both the local school boards and GCSC look at charters on the context of legal requirements, needs, priorities, and other issues to consider a charter application.

Diverting control from local school boards to a state commission in Atlanta; does not seem like local control.  Instead a way to convert all public schools into charters by a state board; and have taxpayers, local parents and PTAs, as far out as Waycross and Dalton to look to the Atlanta board, for their local control.

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

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