With the vote on the charter school amendment just over a month away, the heat is getting intense. I know. I have felt it.
I wrote a column a few weeks ago giving the pro-charter folks an opportunity to make their case for the amendment. For my trouble, a number of anti-charter advocates wondered if I was going soft on them and backers of the bill continued to accuse me of giving out “misinformation.” I love this job.
Herb Garrett, the executive director of the Georgia State School Superintendents Association has some thoughts on the amendment. After reading what Tony Roberts, president of the Georgia Charter School Association and Bert Brantley, the spokesperson for the pro-amendment group told me, Garrett says, “It continues to amaze me that supporters of the proposed amendment see all kinds of extraneous issues arising from the Supreme Court’s ruling which struck down the former Charter Schools Commission on constitutional issues”
Garrett says that the ruling said nothing about limiting the ability of the state Board of Education to approve charter schools, nor did it contain any language that would limit the ability of the Georgia General Assembly to set educational policy through legislation (a contention of some politicians who have used this argument to bolster their argument that the amendment is needed).
He adds that the state Board of Education approved most of the former commission schools as state special charter schools after the Supreme Court decision last spring, and no lawsuit was filed, or to the best of his knowledge, threatened.
As to the claim that the General Assembly has lost its powers to enact public education legislation, Garrett points out that in the last session more than 100 education-related bills that were introduced by legislators and more than 30 were passed and signed into law by Gov. Nathan Deal.
Roberts and Brantley had said while people like me questioned for-profit management companies getting into the charter school business, public schools also hired for-profit management companies, like Ombudsman.
Garrett scoffed: “The comparison of charter school management companies to companies like Ombudsman is a bit disingenuous, too. Ombudsman, which is hired primarily by local schools systems to run alternative programs that are too expensive to operate as a local entity, is an accredited instructional program and is not given management authority over any school or system of which I am aware.
“Some local school systems also hire private companies to perform functions related to custodial and maintenance operations. Unlike those aforementioned management companies, though, local boards who answer to local taxpayers about the expenditure of their tax funds make the decisions to hire these private providers; the decisions are not made by a group of political appointees in Atlanta.”
Garrett says that more than anything else, the amendment is about money — “money for companies that run charter schools and money for politicians’ election campaigns.”
Currently, the pro-charter advocates have raised almost a half-million dollars and, according to news reports, 96 percent of those funds have come from out of state, including from for-profit management companies.
He adds, “I feel safe in saying that those dollars are not being spent purely for the altruistic purpose of providing school choice. As noted in a recent opinion piece in The Macon Telegraph, one need only ‘follow the money.’”
Garrett reiterates that the position of his organization, the Georgia School Superintendents Association, is in support of charter schools as a “tool in the toolbox” for improving public education in our state.
“We simply believe that the best venue for deciding whether a charter school should be located in a local community is at the local level,” he says, “Such a decision should take into account the feasibility of opening a new cost center, whether such a school would offer educational opportunities that are significantly different and better than those already offered by the local school system, and what the fiscal impact would be on both the school system and its taxpayers. I simply do not see those considerations being made properly in Atlanta.”
While the advantage at this point seems to be with the well-funded proponents and their political muscle under the Gold Dome, don’t underestimate the backlash from the grass-roots groups around the state that oppose the amendment and think legislators could do more for public education than they are doing.
This is shaping up to be a battle between David and Goliath. And we all know how that one came out.
Dick Yarbrough is a North Georgia resident whose column appears Saturdays and at gainesvilletimes.com/viewpoint. Contact him at P.O. Box 725373, Atlanta, GA 31139.