Rep. Edward Lindsey, R-Atlanta, majority whip of the Georgia House of Representatives asked me if I would talk to the proponents of the upcoming constitutional amendment on charter schools and get their side of the story. This was after Mr. Lindsey and I had publicly crossed swords over the issue.
So I met with Tony Roberts, president of the Georgia Charter School Association and Bert Brantley, the communications point man for the pro-amendment group, armed with the questions you have asked. Space won't allow me to cover all the points of our conversation, but I'll give you the highlights:
Their central message seems to be this: The Georgia Supreme Court in striking down the Georgia Charter School Commission was not asked and did not rule on the authority of the Georgia Department of Education's ability to approve charter schools. Roberts and Brantley - and members of the Legislature with whom I have talked - contend that if the amendment is defeated in November, the litigants will be back in court and attempt to remove that authority from the state totally. This means, they contend, no charter school could be approved except at the local level and that local school systems would be disinclined to create charter schools because that would diminish their authority.
I asked Alvin Wilbanks, superintendent of the Gwinnett County school system and one of the plaintiffs in the original suit for his response. In a statement, he said, "They are really grasping at straws. I don't know of anyone who has discussed, much less threatened, to do such a thing. In fact, school districts could have pressed this issue when they challenged the constitutionality of the Charter Schools Commission, but chose not to. If we did not do so then, on what basis are the charter proponents alleging that we would do so now?"
Would the Charter School Commission be duplicative to the current organization within the State Department of Education that deals with charter schools? Brantley said the positions in the DOE could easily be transferred to the commission, actually resulting in budget savings since the commission funds will come out of the charter school budget.
As for the concern about for-profit management companies, or EMOs (Educational Management Organizations) and their deep pockets, Brantley reminded me that House Speaker Pro Tem Jan Jones, R-Alpharetta, who led the fight for the charter amendment in the House did receive $1,000 for her campaign coffers from Florida-based Charter Schools USA. However, the Georgia Association of Educators, one of the leading opponents of the amendment gave her $2,500. Remember, it was Jones who claimed Georgia's public school teachers are the most highly-compensated in the nation (which turned out to be untrue.) What is going on here?
Tracey Nelson, director of government affairs for GAE, said the organization must work with Rep. Jones in a variety of issues beyond this amendment. Maybe so, but if I was a member of the GAE, I might have a question about that particular contribution.
Roberts and Brantley say while there is a lot of talk about for-profit companies in charter schools, public schools spent a lot of money on for-profit management companies, too, and showed me the list from a company called Ombudsman, that charged public school systems in Georgia more than $15 million for everything from graduation coaching to working with at-risk students.
Tony Roberts makes an impassioned case for charter schools. He said his organization has learned a lot about the issue of charter school management from watching the experience in other states (not always good) and believes there are "tight controls" in place to prevent for-profit management companies from abusing the system. Roberts said his organization will actually train parents on how to hire and fire EMOs.
I suggested to Roberts and Brantley that if they hope to see this amendment passed, they had better tell legislators to shut their yaps about "failing public schools" since those same legislators are the ones primarily responsible for that perception and don't seem to be doing much to try and change it. I have no patience with that argument and I'm tired of hearing it. If an intrepid public servant would like to debate the issue with me, you know how to get hold of me.
While I still have reservations about the amendment, I thank Rep. Lindsey for reaching out to me and to Tony Roberts and Bert Brantley for not shooting the messenger. I hope those who oppose the amendment will do the same.
You can reach Dick Yarbrough at firstname.lastname@example.org or P.O. Box 725373, Atlanta, GA 31139.