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Our Views: Vote to keep local control of school choice
Charter schools may be a great idea, but let's not take that power from elected boards
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Members of The Times editorial board include Publisher Dennis L. Stockton; General Manager Norman Baggs; Executive Editor Mitch Clarke; and Managing Editor Keith Albertson.

In an election year with only a few contested state and local races, in addition to president, Georgia’s charter school amendment has sparked more passion and interest than any other item on the Nov. 6 ballot.

The amendment to the state Constitution would set up an independent commission at the state level that could approve charter schools that are not run by a local school district. That authority now rests with school boards at either the local or state level. That’s an important point; local school boards can operate charter schools now, and do. The wording on the ballot is confusing on this point.

Proponents of the bill, including Gov. Nathan Deal, say the change will allow the state to create more school options for Georgia students outside of the local school districts. State School Superintendent John Barge and nearly all local school leaders oppose the plan, saying it undermines the authority of boards to govern and fund their own schools at the local level.

The amendment was created by legislators who were thwarted in creating such a plan by a state Supreme Court ruling last year. So in their usual end run around the courts, lawmakers created the referendum to have the law put into the Constitution.

In this case, conservatives who favor the charter school commission seem to be turning away from their long-held belief that local control of education is best. The commission would be able to bypass local boards and set up charter schools, more top-down than bottom-up.

The change also would allow such schools to be operated by for-profit companies. That is another aspect of the amendment that raises eyebrows. Many of these private entities do not now operate in Georgia, and some have been found to be heavy financial contributors to state leaders and groups who back the concept. It leads us to wonder if lawmakers are looking out for what’s best for state students or merely seeking to help their business benefactors.

School choice is an option many parents want in order to steer their kids into better-performing schools. Charter schools are able to operate with more innovation outside of the regular curriculum, and have been applauded for their experimental learning techniques. But data on whether their students actually outperform other public school students is iffy, at best. That leads many to wonder if charter schools really are the answer after all. And if they aren’t, should local school boards be bypassed in order to create and fund them?

For parents, that choice seems simple. If you want a charter school in your neighborhood, you have access to local superintendents and board members who now make that decision. If you don’t like their decisions, vote them out of office.

The state-level commission, however, won’t be directly answerable to the public, and thus insulated from such a fate at the ballot box. That means average Georgians, be they parents or just taxpayers, will have less say in how these decisions are made.

The issue is a complicated one, to be sure, and has sparked strong feelings on both sides. Perhaps that’s why the sidebar spat over who can lobby for or against the amendment has flared up. And in a state ruled largely by Republicans, the intraparty fight between supporters and opponents is unique indeed.

We see the merit in wanting to create more experimental schools that can yield better student results. Georgia’s educational rankings continue to hamper the state’s image and could hurt its ability to attract new industries who want good schools for their workers. We all can agree that maintaining the status quo is undesirable.

But there are two inherit risks in the charter proposal that cannot be ignored.

The first is funding. The state has systematically been reducing educational dollars for local schools for the past several years, to the detriment of education statewide. The operation of new charter schools that could be approved if the amendment passes will require money. That money ultimately will come from state taxes, which could be used for funding for local school systems. When systems already are furloughing teachers and reducing the length of the school year, does that make sense?

The second is slightly more esoteric but no less important. If the state invests in the creation and funding of charter schools answerable to state oversight, while at the same time reducing funding for other schools, the end result may be an economic and academic segregation of public education, with top students headed for the well-heeled charter schools and “everybody else” left behind at underfunded traditional campuses. Such a scenario could change forever basic tenets of public education.

There are enough uncertainties in the charter school amendment to lead us to encourage a “no” vote. Any law that puts more control in the hands of a state-run, unelected commission over elected local school boards is a nonstarter. The relationship between lawmakers and the for-profit charter school business is unsettling. And the potential for doing harm to public education rather than improving it is too great.

Having said that, we hope you will take time to consider both sides of the debate, learn more about the amendment and consider it carefully before voting. However you decide, let it be based on valid information, not who was able to lobby harder on one side or the other.

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