Georgia has spoken: residents want the state to have the ultimate say on charter school approval.
On Tuesday, 58 percent of voters supported Amendment 1 on the ballot, calling for a constitutional amendment giving the state final authority on approving charter schools, some of which could be operated privately.
The road leading up to the vote polarized the state and transcended political lines.
Gov. Nathan Deal and school choice advocates had pitched the amendment as a way to give families more educational options. State Superintendent John Barge, a Republican like Deal, led educator groups in opposition, saying it would lessen local control and siphon public money from existing schools.
And although the back and forth is likely not over, with looming talks of potential lawsuits over the language of the ballot question, school officials are looking ahead to the new educational landscape.
Members of both the Gainesville City Schools and Hall County Schools boards of education have publicly opposed the amendment, saying the current status of the state’s education budget is not conducive for added stress.
But, local education leaders said, the confidence they have in their system’s ability to compete with, if not outperform, state charter schools is high.
“We are looking forward to the challenge, to be honest,” said Merrianne Dyer, superintendent of Gainesville City Schools. “We did not want the amendment to pass because of the funding and the creation of another layer of bureaucracy for education, but now that the citizens of Georgia have spoken and this will be, we feel confident we can meet that challenge.”
Both Gainesville and Hall County are no strangers to charter schools.
Five years ago, the entire Gainesville school system went charter, one of 16 systems in the state to do so. Hall County currently oversees 11 charter schools with 10 more housing programs of choice.
“I am just not convinced it’s going to have much of an effect on our school district,” said Will Schofield, Hall superintendent. “Again, we’ve been out there for almost a decade now trying to listen to families, trying to create opportunities and different ways of putting together schools and to innovate, and if there’s somebody out there that can do it better and do it more efficiently, then, you know, come on. I just haven’t seen that yet.”
Schofield said he can see both sides of the state-approved charter schools argument and said it’s important for the commission and its appointed leaders to take caution in making decisions.
“If, in fact, we take the amendment at its face value — which was there are some places in the state of Georgia where some folks are longing for some options other than what they have — there’s no reason why that can’t be very positive,” he said. “But I think it has to be very thoughtful and it’s going to be a process that really requires people getting around the table and figuring this thing out and doing it right.”
According to Georgia House Bill 797, the legislation that sets forth regulations of the commission, seven nonpaid members will be appointed to the commission by the State Board of Education. The governor will have three appointments, while the president of the Senate and the speaker of the House will each have two.
Groups that file charter petitions for schools with a “defined attendance zone” will have to go through local boards first. The local boards will have 60 days after submission to approve or deny petitions before it goes before the state commission.
Petitions for schools with a statewide attendance zone can be cleared by the state without first going through local boards.
But, the bill reads, the state board has the authority to overrule the commission by majority vote within 60 days of the commission’s decision.
The bill becomes effective Jan. 1.
And, Dyer said, Gainesville-Hall County has been an area of interest for outside charter schools in the past.
About two years ago, she said, a group approached four systems: Gainesville and Hall, Barrow and Jackson counties. The group was interested in establishing a charter school on the Hall-Jackson county line.
Dyer said the systems heard the idea, but the group never approached them again after the initial meeting.
“That shows that there are people out there thinking about it,” she said.
But, Dyer continued, with the current school systems in Hall County, the likelihood of a local, state-authorized charter school is slim.
“The privatized charters are a business, so they’re looking for where they can make a profit,” she said. “So, they’re going to put their schools where they have a market. I would not think that we would be one of the first places they would come because of the quality of our public and private schools that are here.”