While the nation focuses on the presidential race, sifting through every aspect of the candidates’ campaigns and debates, another contest is gaining widespread attention in Georgia.
Between now and Nov. 6, voters will have the power to decide if the state constitution will be amended to allow the creation of a new state board that can approve 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 the local boards opt out of.
That debate has polarized the state, and not along the usual party lines.
Gov. Nathan Deal publicly supports the amendment. State School Superintendent John Barge, like Deal a Republican, has publicly opposed it.
Tea party members and the Georgia National Association for the Advancement of Colored People are opposed.
Herman Cain, former GOP presidential candidate, has endorsed the amendment, along with Atlanta consumer advocate Clark Howard.
“It’s not a partisan issue,” said Jane Langley, campaign manager for Vote SMART Georgia, a coalition that opposes the amendment.
The constitutional change, however, ultimately rests in the hands of Georgia voters who are asked to answer “yes” or “no” to Amendment 1 on this year’s ballot.
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?”
If approved, the amendment would allow an avenue to reinstate an appointed, seven-member state charter commission that would have the authority to allocate state education funds for the creation of additional, privately-run charter schools.
If denied, the system would continue as is.
Opponents of the amendment say the commission is a duplication of a system already in place and would be financially irresponsible, considering the education budget woes local public systems have endured.
“Amendment 1 is about truth and trust,” Langley said. “It is not about charter schools, it is not about families and it is not about choice. Georgia already has more than 200 charter schools and more in the pipeline. Amendment 1 is a costly duplication of services that already exists.
“Local school boards can and do approve charter schools and if they deny the application, the charter applicant can appeal it to the Department of Education.”
Supporters of the bill say the funding for the state charter schools is less than 1 percent of the state’s budget and will come from other areas outside of what already has been allocated for public K-12 education.
“I have three kids in public schools — I live in Walton County,” said Mark Peevy, former chairman of the Georgia Charter Schools Commission before the state’s power to approve charter schools was declared unconstitutional.
“I looked at this hard enough and if I thought in any way, shape or form that my kids’ schools were going to be harmed then I’d be the first one to say, ‘No, this is not a good idea.’ But what it represents is just choices.”
Barge previously stated the state would have to come up with $430 million in new state funds over the next five years to pay for new charter schools, assuming the commission approves seven per year. He estimated the per pupil cost to be about $7,400.
Authors of the bill, however, said because the state charter schools will not use local tax dollars, the per pupil costs will be lower; they say the average per student cost in Georgia is closer to $9,000.
Jan Jones, speaker pro tem of Georgia’s House of Representative and author of House Bill 797, the legislation laying the groundwork for the commission, said new charter schools will be funded under the same formula the state uses to fund public systems.
To make up the difference of not using local property taxes, the commission plans to take the average revenue, minus state and federal funds, from the five lowest school systems and add that amount to the state funding.
“The bulk of their funding will be utilized through the same state funding formula as students in traditional schools,” Jones said. “The extra money that we would spend on this is a very, very small amount and we took it from other areas of the budget and we added it to the education budget.”
She said local systems will receive the same amount of per-pupil funding, but if a student moves from a public school to a private charter schools, the money will follow.
“It’s not new money,” Peevy said. “These kids are all in school now. But if they remain in traditional public schools, the state, me and you as taxpayers, would end up spending almost $540 million. ... You actually spend more because the funding level is higher.”
Langley, however, said if students leave public schools for the private charters, it could leave the former in a bind.
“Public schools still have to pay for buildings, maintenance, transportation,” she said. “They like to say that the money follows the student, but that doesn’t wash because the public schools still have expenses whether the student is there or not.”
Other opponents said the state is underfunding the public schools and the new system would add another strain to an already fragile budget.
“The problem that I see is under QBE, which is the funding formula for the state, the state is currently not funding education in accordance with their own formula,” said David Syfan, Gainesville Board of Education member and vocal opponent of the amendment. “So, they are not financially supporting public education right now in accordance with what their own formula says they should pay.
“The question I have, and I think it’s a reasonable question, is if you’re running in the red with funding something you’ve already committed to fund, where are you going to get any money to fund a separate state charter system?”
Syfan said if this amendment is aimed at fixing the state’s education woes, then legislators are going about it wrongly. In fact, he said, it could end up hurting public schools.
“The creation of an entirely new state bureaucracy with its intention to pull away public tax dollars to fund that new state system, to me, it’s going to hurt the ability of the other systems to do what they should be do doing,” Syfan said.
Syfan believes that if changes are needed in education, residents should vote out local boards and fire superintendents. A handful of charter schools, he said, could help a select number of systems, but it could also ignore many in needy areas.
Supporters see the plan as another choice for parents and feel the competition it could bring would raise the performance of all schools.
“I am a supporter of this because I think it is just another tool that we need to have in the toolkit of what we’re doing for education in Georgia,” said Peevy, adding the commission would push for local approval first.
“In running the commission, we encouraged any petitioning group that came to the commission to first make sure they went through the local board with their absolute best effort that they could bring. There are lost of inherent advantages to being a locally-approved charter school. ... I honestly think that this particular amendment does a good job with ensuring that all charter applications have to come through the local district first.”
But opening the state’s doors to privately-operated schools is a scary thought for opponents.
“The bottom line, really, is there are these for-profit, out-of-Georgia corporations itching to do business in Georgia and make a boatload of money,” Langley said. “There are politicians itching to make a boatload of money. Put the two together and boom, you’ve got Amendment 1.”