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Where Are Our Children in the Conversation about Amendment 1 in Georgia?

November 1, 2012

Georgia voters will be trying to wade through the rhetoric and politics to cast their votes on whether to support a new process for evaluating and approving applications for charter schools.  We have seen a fast and furious attempt from parties on both sides of the issue to gain the advantage.  We have seen deceptive ads, especially from the supporters of Amendment 1, that try to tap into voters’ emotions. So what should the voter know about and what should the voter do to inform him or herself about this topic.

First, what is the issue we are voting on?  Here is the language of Amendment 1:

Provides for improving student achievement and pa rental involvement through more public charter school options.

House Resolution No. 1162 Ga. L. 2012, p. 1364

Shall the Constitution of Georgia be amended to allow state or local approval of public charter schools upon the request of local communities?

Currently, the authority for granting charters rests first with the local school district were the charter is being sought.  Second, the Georgia’s Department of Education has to approve the charter application as well.  This process has been used to create around 110 charter schools in Georgia.  There are also about 15 State-approved charters that were authorized by the State Commission before it was struck down by the state Supreme Court as being unconstitutional.  Many of these 125-plus charter schools are quite successful, while others of them have struggled to meet the demands of accountability that local and state governing bodies have put in place.

The State supported commission to control and regulate charters in the Georgia was struck down by the state Supreme Court in 2011 as being unconstitutional.  Amendment 1 is a backdoor way of revisiting this issue and getting the voters to “reauthorize” the State Commission on charter schools.

The current process for granting a charter is through local school boards and the State Department of Education, so voters can exercise their opinions through elections for their local school board officials or the Governor of the state.

The proposed process in Amendment 1 makes way for an appointed state commission on charter schools.  Members of the commission will be appointed by elected officials, but only answerable to them.  Applications will not be authorized through locally elected school boards.  Therefore, the application review process is one-step removed from voter scrutiny.  The Governor will have influence over appointing members of the State Charter Commission.  I like the way Jay Bookman summarized his concerns in the article, Charter-School Amendment Would Set Off a Gold Rush.

My concern about Amendment 1 is that most of the heavy backers, both in the press and financially, are private corporations from outside the State of Georgia that see themselves benefiting from a process that uses a state commission, rather than a two-tiered approach through local and state education boards.  It seems to me the state commission process has fewer checks-and-balances in place, keeping special interest lobbying efforts at arm’s length.  These parties, many of them for-profit corporations running charter networks, will have a slightly unencumbered pathway to approval and easier access to government officials or commission members.  We already see a plethora of problems surface in our state and federal governments when influence peddlers get access to government officials.

On the other hand, when the control is in the hands of local school boards there are valid concerns that charter applications are not widely encouraged, supported or evaluated fairly.  The question that many of people wonder about is: do local school boards really want competition from potentially high-quality charter schools that might siphon students and teachers from their ranks.  Does the competition hurt local public schools because students leave, taking with them the tax dollars that support their attendance at a charter school?  Also, there is concern that the charter schools don’t compete on a level playing field with their public school neighbors.  The charter school has more independence in the way it operates so long as it fulfills the goals it lays out in its charter and stays true to the process that governs its operation.

I find it very interesting that in all the political rhetoric around Amendment 1, there is almost no conversation about what is best for students in Georgia.  There are excellent students, teachers, and administrators thriving in our public schools.  Do some schools need help?  Yes!  Georgia ranks 45th based on SAT scores.  Georgia ranks 41st based on Morgan Quinto Smartest State (2006-2007).  Georgia ranks 47th based on Averaged Freshman Graduation Rate for Public High School Students (see link for reference).  So for me the issue isn’t whether we have more or less charter schools in Georgia and what process we use to authorize them.  For me the issue is how do we improve public education in Georgia, and how do we do it with speed and fidelity.  More charter schools will not solve this problem, especially if the charter schools are run by for-profit corporations that are more interested in padding the wallets of their stockholders than in the education of our young people.  There is very little good data that suggests for-profit corporations do a far better job than our public schools in educating our youth.

We need to improve all public schools using tax dollars wisely.  We need to train and hire high-quality teachers and pay them well if they maintain standards of excellence.  We need to support families, offering them educational programs that help them parent, and appropriately engage them in their child’s education.  We need to build a strong sense of community in each of our public schools.  Finally, we need to have a highly scrutinized and fair process for charter schools to come online and provide competition to our public schools.  Competition is a good thing.  It places demand on all schools to rise to higher standards, being sure they are meeting all the needs of all their students.

We cannot allow misinformed advocates and deceptive ads to cloud our judgment on whether to support Amendment 1.  People on each side of the argument want to win.  Winning at what cost?  Who has a better plan to pull Georgia up from being one of the lowest ranked states in public education, which includes our charters?  We need to encourage and challenge our elected officials to allow more respected, high-quality educators to sit at the table, sharing their voice in how we improve education for our children.

As an educator, I have more faith in my colleagues changing the course of education in Georgia than I do in for-profit corporations or appointed state commissions.  I would rather invest in more local control over how education is distributed in my community.  However, I do strongly believe that local officials and school boards have to facilitate the development of “enterprise zones” that include a mix of different types of high-quality schools.  Public, charter, and independent schools all have a role to play and can be partners in this work.  Competition is healthy so long as we keep our eye on the prize, a great education for ALL students.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. November 1, 2012 12:22 pm

    Thank you for this detailed response! This actually helps me put this in perspective!

    Like

    • November 1, 2012 1:21 pm

      Thanks so much for reading the post. Glad to hear that my thoughts helped you put your ideas together. This is definitely a hot issue in GA and will resolve itself next Tuesday. My hope is that the Amendment is not supported AND that pressure it put to bear on local districts to be more receptive and engaging in the charter school movement. I personally do not want to see for-profit companies bringing their schools into GA. I would rather have a thorough and fair process at the local level controlling what schools are available for students.

      We’ll see what happens. But whatever does happen, GA has a long way to go to provide a quality education for all students. Since we graduate < 70% of our students from HS, it is clear we have significant challenges to rectify.

      Bob

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  2. November 1, 2012 7:14 pm

    What the amendment is also not clear on is how the commission suggests that new schools will operate on only a portion of the funding that the former commission was able to allocate. The only schools that will actually be able to exist under this new approval method are virtual schools where the children stay home and get their coursework online. Since we already have access to an online program AND homeschooling, this seems to me to be something that isn’t needed and will only take funds away from our already suffering schools. Thanks for your overview and explanation. I hope it helps people who want to know what they are voting on!

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    • November 2, 2012 7:18 am

      One of the issues that charters face is that even under the current system for approval, local districts and state BOE, they do not get the same allocation per student that their neighborhood public schools get. I don’t know the exact percent, but somewhere between 85-90%. Therefore, they have to make up the gap with private funding if they are to provide an apples-to-apples education with regard to resources. I think there are charters that are quite successful at making up the gap. Drew Charter School is one example, as are all the KIPP schools. I do think charters can be function beyond the virtual world. My feeling is that we (all taxpayers) have to be more willing to pay the real cost of educating our children. It takes more than about $11,000 per student to give a really high-quality experience. However, the resources have to be spent wisely. We know that GA is not a great state for supporting or producing high-quality education for all students. Only about 54% of HS students in GA graduate. That is disgraceful. We spend almost 3-4 times more to incarcerate people in prison than educate them (click here). All the people in GA prisons are most likely people who WE failed to educate effectively. We are paying the price. So why not put more tax $$$ to educate students from birth through 12th grade? If we do that well, then we probably will not have as many people in our prisons. US has the HIGHEST incarceration rate of any country in the world. WHY is that? Education can be the solution, but we have to elect politicians who have the WILL to support change that transforms our schools, by allowing classroom teachers and principals to have a voice at the table. That is why I will vote AGAINST AMENDMENT 1. I do not want votes for the direction of education to lie in the hands of appointees of the Governor and who are beholding to him. They need to have more independence and be held more accountable to the local districts and voters in that district.

      Thanks for reading and sharing!

      Bob

      Like

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