The Union Recorder

Election 2012

October 13, 2012

Amendment 1: Charter Schools — a closer look

 

Registered voters across the state can begin marking their ballots Monday when early voting kicks off for the Nov. 6 general election. As one of two amendments listed on the ballot, voters will make their yes or no decision regarding the controversial charter school amendment, which officially reads “Shall the Constitution of Georgia be amended to allow state or local approval of public charter schools upon the request of local communities?”

Understanding Georgia’s charter school amendment

Registered voters across the state can begin marking their ballots Monday when early voting kicks off for the Nov. 6 general election. As one of two amendments listed on the ballot, voters will make their yes or no decision regarding the controversial charter school amendment, which officially reads “Shall the Constitution of Georgia be amended to allow state or local approval of public charter schools upon the request of local communities?”

Though educators are very much aware of the effects schools will be hit with if there is a constitutional change, voters outside the academic realm, including college students, parents and every day citizens may not be as informed of what the charter school amendment really is and what it means if passed.

Charter schools are independent public schools supported by public funds, but have greater freedom from state rules and regulations than traditional public schools. Charter schools are free to hire and fire personnel, design curriculum and promote specific values. A charter school must negotiate a contract, or charter, usually with a local school district or charter authorizer designated by the state. Each charter may vary, because each state has different education laws and each charter school is designed to be unique in focus or student clientele. However, all contracts describe school goals, how the school will be run, the amount of public money it will receive, and the degree of freedom it will be given.

In a May 2011 ruling by the Georgia Supreme Court, the court ruled that the state’s involvement in the establishment of public charter schools was unconstitutional. That led Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal to push the amendment that would override the court, which voters will settle next month.

Five plaintiffs brought a lawsuit against all of Georgia’s 180 local school districts, alleging illegal campaigning by public education officials who opposed to the charter school amendment, unraveled Wednesday in Fulton County. A second lawsuit has already been filed by different plaintiffs in Gwinnett County. The Fulton case still could go to trial, and the Gwinnett case has yet to be heard.  

The Georgia charter school amendment appearing on the November ballot essentially gives the state legislature the right to create special schools without prior approval by local boards of education. 

Voters will decide whether to amend the state Constitution regarding the authorization of charter schools and how the state can rent buildings for its use.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Where can I do more research?

Georgia Association of Educators: http://gae2.org/content.asp?ContentId=1417

Professional Association of Georgia Educators: http://www.pageinc.org/

Georgia Charter Schools Association: http://www.gacharters.org/

Advocates for Amendment 1 see better choices for students

 

The debate in Georgia over a constitutional amendment to allow more state charter schools isn't likely to fade away before the Nov. 6 ballot referendum is decided. The charter constitutional amendment asks voters whether the constitution of Georgia should be amended to allow state or local approval of public charter schools upon request of local communities. 

It reads: “Shall the Constitution of Georgia be amended to allow state or local approval of public charter schools upon the request of local communities?”

Supporters of the amendment see the referendum as the answer to the problem of Georgia's weakened education system. In terms of public schools, Georgia ranks 45th in the nation based on SAT scores and 47th based on average freshmen graduation rate for public high school students, according to some statistical rankings.  

“We've tried the 'one size fits all' approach to education for decades, and we've had too many students fall through the cracks,” Jan Jones, speaker pro-tem of the state House of Representatives, told a room of Milledgeville Exchange Club members recently about the amendment.

Voters who approve the amendment see it as an option for parents who view K-12 education in public school as a substandard form of education. 

Amendment supporters believe that charter schools give parents more opportunities to be actively involved in their child's education. Charter schools are schools that receive public money, but they are not subject to the same rules and regulations as typical public schools. They operate according to performance-based academic goals that the schools must achieve in order to remain an active school. Although they must work under the rules of a charter, charter schools are like public schools in some ways. Like all K-12 public schools, charter schools are not free from standardized testing or other statewide assessments nor are they allowed to hire teachers who aren't certified by the state of Georgia. 

"Academically, I think they are a good idea because they have to have goals to offer something better than what public schools offer and provide," said Donna Edmonds, a parent and resident of Milledgeville. "I visited the one in Baconton [Baconton Community Charter School] and it has a lot of parental involvement and discipline was almost non-existent."

Guest speakers Charles Rutland and Pastor Tony Lowden gathered Oct. 3 for the weekly Milledgeville Exchange Club meeting to discuss with members the benefits of charter schools. According to Rutland, out of the 159 counties in the state of Georgia, nine counties have, at some point, had a charter school. Seven out of the nine still currently exist. Once a charter school does not meet performance standards, it is no longer an option.

"Performance goals set a high level for the school," said Rutland. "Higher performance goals produces a higher level of accountability in the student." For Lowden, charter schools help push students forward in competitive academic environments.

"I saw education as my ticket out of the ghetto," said Lowden. "In high school I worked hard to get A's, but when I got to college I realized that my high school was sub par and those A's were nowhere near where I should have been compared to state standards."  

The Georgia charter school amendment appearing on the November ballot essentially gives the state Legislature the right to create special schools without prior approval by local boards of education. 

Supporters of the amendment believe charter schools are free of politics and hidden political agendas. With performance standards the focus of the life or death of charter schools, decisions can be made more efficiently, many contend. 

Educators oppose amendment

 

Dr. Gloria Wicker cast her ballot Tuesday morning, and as a retired educator and current local school board member, she encourages all Georgia voters, especially those in Baldwin County, to learn about the impact the charter school amendment will have on public school systems, if approved.

“I’m not against charter schools, but I am against state control. I’m against the charter school amendment for the simple reason that the state would be in control of charter schools,” she said. “To me, it means that it would take monies away from already slacked public school systems. There’s no guarantee that even if there was a charter school that was state controlled, that every child that needs to be in a charter school would get in.”

On the Nov. 6 ballot, the proposal to rewrite the Georgia Constitution officially reads: “Shall the Constitution of Georgia be amended to allow state or local approval of public charter schools upon the request of local communities?”

Charter schools are independent public schools supported by public funds that have greater freedom from state rules and regulations than traditional public schools. Charter schools are free to hire and fire personnel, design curriculum and promote specific values. A charter school must negotiate a contract, or charter, usually with a local school district or charter authorizer designated by the state. Each charter may vary because each state has different education laws, and each charter school is designed to be unique in focus or student clientele. However, all contracts describe school goals, how the school will be run, the amount of public money it will receive and the degree of freedom it will be given.

The Georgia charter school amendment appearing on the November ballot essentially gives the state Legislature the right to create special schools without prior approval by local boards of education. 

“I feel that the local school system should have a voice in charter schools because anything could happen, and it scares me to think that it would not be in the best interest of our children in Baldwin County,” Wicker said. “The state provides about 37 percent [in funding] to Baldwin County, so this would mean we get even less funding for public schools, especially to get books for children and pay teacher salaries. We’re already having to do things that we don’t want to do, like increase the millage rate.”

According to the Georgia Association of Educators (GAE), a statewide teacher’s organization, the amendment could negatively impact issues for educators across the state, from job security and working conditions to salaries to benefits. It could mean a shorter school year, bigger classes and fewer resources for youth, the GAE contends.

State School Superintendent Dr. John Barge announced his opposition to the constitutional amendment via press release in August. He said it would cost an additional $430 million in state funds to add seven new state charter schools per year over the next five years.

“Instead, this $430 million should be used to restore the austerity cuts to students in Georgia’s traditional public schools, including those in Georgia’s locally approved charter schools. Our students deserve a full 180-day school year, and our teachers deserve full pay,” Barge said. “I fully support the continued creation of high quality charter schools for Georgia’s students ... I cannot support the creation of a new and costly state bureaucracy that takes away local control of schools and unnecessarily duplicates the good work already being done by local districts, the Georgia Department of Education and the state Board of Education. What’s more, this constitutional amendment would direct taxpayer dollars into the pockets of out-of-state, for-profit charter school companies whose schools perform no better than traditional public schools and locally approved charter schools.”

Most Georgians and even most educators are not familiar or fully aware about the ballot initiative language or what is really at stake for the state if the amendment passes.

“I am not well-versed on this issue. I’ve been hearing a lot of negatives about it, but I have to study it more and get more informed about this. I just don’t understand why the state would want two entities that would run in shortfalls; it makes no sense,” said Georgia Seabrook, local parent and former Georgia Department of Education Parent Advisory Council member. “I think there should be objective data collected, and people should seek out professionals who are most knowledgeable about this issue before they vote.”

As the early voting period continues across the state, Wicker said she has expressed her concerns about the amendment to all individuals she comes in contact with. 

“I’ve been speaking to people on the streets, at church gatherings, and I’ve had a person call me about the charter school issue. Wherever I’ve been, I’ve been talking about this amendment and letting people know where I stand on it. I feel that people need to get out and vote, but they need to have a full understanding of it,” she said. “The main thing voters need to consider — whether they are retired or have children in schools — our community will be affected negatively if this bill passes. By that I mean we will get less funding to help our children in public schools. When we don’t have children that are being taught and don’t have resources available to move them to a higher level, everybody is impacted; I just don’t like this idea.”

Community invited to charter school forum

 

With a number of Georgia voters still unsure on what the proposed charter school referendum on the November ballot means, the Milledgeville-Baldwin County Chamber of Commerce and The Union-Recorder will sponsor a local forum on issue.

“We initially planned on having a candidate forum, but candidate forums popped up all over the place, so we decided to cancel ours due to conflict. We felt this charter school amendment issue was weighty enough to have a forum on it,” Chamber CEO April Bragg said. “The charter school referendum has been a hotly debated topic in Georgia and Baldwin County. Voters need to have all of the information to make an informed decision, and that's the purpose of this forum.”

The forum is scheduled for 6 p.m. Monday at Digital Bridges in downtown Milledgeville, featuring representatives from the PAGE (Professional Association of Georgia Educators) Foundation and Brighter Georgia Education Coalition.

“The event is free and open to the community in an effort to give the public an opportunity to hear first-hand from professionals on both sides of the issue so they have a full understanding on what they’re voting on when they head to the polls,” Bragg said. “We want to serve as a source of information to educate voters about the issue by bringing in experts on the subject to present the pro's and con's of the proposed amendment.”

A Baldwin County elections official is also expected to be in attendance to discuss the ballot and the voting process.

As one of two amendments listed on the ballot, voters will decide next month whether to amend the state constitution regarding the authorization of charter schools. The amendment question on this year’s ballot reads: “Shall the Constitution of Georgia be amended to allow state or local approval of public charter schools upon the request of local communities?” 

“We’re stressing the importance of voters to get out and vote as we’re providing an opportunity for people to be educated on this issue,” Bragg said. “We encourage the community to come out and hear what’s going on at this forum.”

For more information about the forum, contact the Chamber office at (478) 453-9311 or visit www.milledgevillega.com.

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Locals turn out for charter school forum

 

Students, educators and concerned citizens attended a charter school referendum forum at Digital Bridges hosted by The Milledgeville-Baldwin County Chamber of Commerce and The Union-Recorder Monday night.

The community forum brought experts from both sides of the charter school argument. 

Georgia College professor of economics and the first chair of the Georgia Charter Schools Commission (GCSC), Dr. Ben Scafidi, presented a favorable case for the amendment proposal on the November ballot. Professional Association of Georgia Educators (PAGE) representative Jimmy Jordan is a retired public educator from Jasper County against state power to override local school boards for charter school creation.

Scafidi's opening statements included detailed statistics before and after GCSC's creation. In 2007 and 2008, local school boards approved only two charter schools, while 13 opened the last year of the GCSC.

A May 2011 ruling by the Georgia Supreme Court ruled that the state’s involvement in the establishment of public charter schools through GCSC was unconstitutional. That led Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal to push the amendment that would override the court, which voters will settle next month at the polls. The amendment’s approval would open the door for the charter school commission to be re-established. 

Higher proportions of minority and low-income students attended those 13 charter institutions than traditional public schools, according to Scafidi. The former GCSC chair said zero property tax funds go to state approved charter schools, while public schools retain all of the funding when students leave for a charter school.

If the amendment is approved, charter schools will receive funding equal to the average of the four poorest, lowest spending Georgia school districts.

“Independent charter schools serve more disadvantaged students and get higher levels of student achievement at a lower cost to tax payers,” Scafidi said.

Charter schools must abide by federal laws on civil rights, safety, accountability, testing and curriculum. Scafidi said two points of accountability provide a good incentive to maintain standards.

Whoever opens the charter school can shut it down and full funding per student leaves the school if a child is pulled out, according to Scafidi.

The former GCSC chair said a majority of states have charter school authorizers other than local school districts.

“We've lost 11 percent of our students since 1996. This is an economic development issue,” Scafidi said. “If we had better schools, more people with kids would live here. A more educated population gets more business.”

Jordan's presentation said the state constitution doesn't need to be amended when an appropriate system is already in place.

“Local school boards can issue charters. Charter schools can appeal to the state board of education if they are not granted a charter by the local board of education,” Jordan said Monday.

The PAGE representative said the Amendment 1 language might confuse voters. Voting YES reinstates the GCSC, while removing any local power to override a charter school.

“The question is misleading,” Jordan said. “It doesn't tell you that a new state agency with its own million dollar budget will be created to do what two existing bodies can already do under Georgia law.”

The charter school commission consists of a seven-member unpaid panel appointed by the governor, Senate majority leader and the Speaker of the House.

Over the last few years, $5 billion has been withheld from Georgia students causing shortened school years and teacher pay cuts in the form of furlough days. Diverting more state funds from local school boards will place public schools even further behind, according to Jordan.

Jordan said local school boards don't have revenues because of the tax base.

“People feel like there will be a public school system go bankrupt this year if something doesn't change with the economy,” the retired educator said.

Jordan said 91 percent of state students attend traditional public schools, so only 15,000 students would benefit from the reopening of the GCSC.

“The state could create schools with no participation at all from local boards,” Jordan said. “The amendment runs counter to Georgia's long history and culture of a strong, local control of community schools.”

When asked about the PAGE's stance on Georgia charter schools, Jordan said the charter schools that obtain their charter through local boards of education are high quality. Jordan stated other choices beyond traditional public schools like college and career academies and magnet programs can meet student need.

Scafidi elaborated on transparency requirements. He mentioned that charter school is subject to all open record laws. Scafidi said students could abandon charter schools and go back to a public school anytime. 

When asked about the coexistence of public and charter schools, Scafidi said studies show no adverse affects. 

“When there is more school choice, the public schools are either unaffected or improved,” Scafidi said. “Not one study shows charter schools harming public schools academically.”

Addressing teacher pay cuts, Jordan said 4,000 teacher jobs disappeared over the last three years. He doesn't see any room left.

Removing the local checks and balances provided by county elected officials will negatively affect every traditional Georgia public school system, according to Jordan.

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