Early voting opened Monday and although the presidential race is heating up, it’s not the only thing on the ballot attracting more and more attention.
Georgia voters, between now and Nov. 6, will decide if the state’s constitution will be amended to allow the creation of a new state board to select private organizations to run taxpayer-funded charter schools.
Currently, that power is reserved for local boards of education, with the state board able to approve charters that the local boards opt out of.
And some of those local boards have publicly stated their position on the amendment, with many opposing the change.
In fact, local boards have made enough noise that earlier this month, Attorney General Sam Olens wrote State School Superintendent John Barge advising him that “local school boards do not have the legal authority to expend funds or other resources to advocate or oppose the ratification of a constitutional amendment by the voters.”
The Gainesville City Board of Education has not passed any resolutions opposing, or supporting, the amendment, but on Monday, a board member spoke out as a concerned citizen.
David Syfan, during the citizens’ comments section of the meeting, said he has “a huge problem with this proposed constitutional amendment so long as the state is not fully funding public education.”
Syfan said the state has seen an increase of about 40,000 students since 2008, while losing more than 4,000 teachers due to budget cuts.
He said the state, in that time period, has cut $4.4 billion in funding for public education.
“I feel like this constitutional amendment is going in the wrong direction,” said Syfan. “It’s taking money from our public schools.”
Barge estimated the state’s General Assembly plans to come up with more than $430 million in new state funds over the next five years to fund the commission and its charter schools.
Advocates for the amendment claim local boards were dragging their feet in approving charter schools and opponents only fear more charter schools will break the status quo in public education.
Opponents have said the new state commission would open the door to for-profit schools, run by private companies with little to no accountability.
“When you start thinking that 15 people in Atlanta would be controlling these schools on a statewide basis — it’s never been the way we’ve run our public school system in the state of Georgia,” said Syfan.
Gainesville City Schools is a charter system and is reapplying for its charter status.
The Hall County Board of Education released a statement urging caution on the amendment during the citizens’ comments section of its September meeting.
Syfan also said the language of the question on November’s ballot is misleading.
The question asks: “Shall the Constitution of Georgia be amended to allow state or local approval of public charter schools upon the request of local communities?”
“To me, the charter question on the ballot is extremely misleading and my impression is that was intentionally done,” said Syfan. “So, if you don’t read about it or hear about it, your inclination is to vote for it because of the way it’s worded.
“I wanted to try to provide public information as to what I saw were problems with the proposed charter amendments and how I think it hurts public education.”
Gov. Nathan Deal has publicly supported the amendment, while Barge has previously come out against it.
“In my opinion, if you’re going to support public education, you need to vote against this constitutional amendment,” Syfan said.