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Commentary: Charter amendment is just crony capitalism

POSTED: May 13, 2012 12:30 a.m.

The Charter School Amendment on November’s ballot looks like an attempt to let the free market work its magic in education, but it’s really an attempt to convert public tax dollars into private profit. Ever since the release of the documentary “Waiting for Superman,” the buzz around charter schools has reached a fevered pitch.

Charter school is actually a poorly defined term. It can mean anything from a neighborhood public school with a special charter related to governance and curriculum to a public school with a unique curriculum that operates with limited seating.

Despite the buzz around them, the average charter school doesn’t outperform the average public school. The charter schools that outperform nonchartered schools are those that accept a limited number of students and quickly return underperforming students to their regular public schools.

For example, the much touted KIPP charter schools, in the San Francisco area, returned 60 percent of their students back to the regular district by the eighth grade. Most of these were low performers. These schools are just erasing their failures.

Still, there is something to be said for every district having a school with extremely rigorous standards. As the law stands, every district could have charter schools with academic and behavioral standards rivaling those of the most rigorous of private Catholic schools. We just lack the political will to do so, especially if that means making sure there are enough seats so that admission by lottery wouldn’t be necessary.

Charter schools with rigorous curriculum could exist now. Since $1 billion has been cut from education, Georgia’s leadership doesn’t seem keen on funding the schools they have, much less new schools. So why are they pushing for this amendment?

What the Charter School Amendment does is allow the state to directly create charter schools despite the will of local school boards. The amendment’s backers claim that state funding for local schools won’t be affected, but when the state has its own schools, how long might this promise last?

Also, knowing who is backing this amendment gives us clear reason to believe this isn’t about enhancing parent choice in education but rather funneling tax dollars into a private hands.

A corporation known as Academica has been operating charter schools in Florida for years. A local school board turned down one of its attempts to start a charter school in Georgia. After that, Academica began lobbying to change the law so it might create schools directly through the state.

As public schools, charter schools are not subject to property tax. The CEO of Academica, Fernando Zulueta, and his brother have stakes in real estate management companies that buy land which is then leased to Academica schools. This results in substantial, property tax-free profit. Nine Academica schools are paying rents that exceed their total revenue.

If this charter school amendment passes, companies like Academica will be able to bypass local governments and start charter schools directly through the state. Partnering real estate companies can lease these schools real estate which will then no longer be taxable by city and county authorities. The schools will, of course, pay with money they receive from the state to operate.

The loss of property tax revenue will cut into the budget of local governments that  had no say in the matter, definitely violating the promise that the charter school amendment won’t affect local school funding. The charter school amendment isn’t a free-market solution. It’s crony capitalism, at best.

This educational policy should be called, “The race to be the developing world.” The charter school amendment is being spearheaded by state Sen. Chip Rogers, who is sometimes hailed as a tea party hero.

I admire the tea party’s ideal of local government control, low taxes and free market solutions. However, I would suggest they dig deeper into the political nature of this character. While speaking out in favor of school choice, he appears to be leading an effort to strip local school boards of not only their power but potentially counties and cities of part of their tax base.

Brandon Givens is a Hall County resident and teacher, and a frequent columnist.


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