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Charter school amendment cons, pros weighed at roundtable

There was impassioned discussion before a full room on the pros and cons of the state constitutional amendment on charter schools that is on November’s ballot at a roundtable session hosted by state Rep. Pamela Dickerson (Conyers-D) and Doreen Williams Monday 

Guest panelists included Rockdale County Public Schools Superintendent Richard Autry, Rockdale School Board members Darlene Hotchkiss and Wales Barksdale – who stated they were expressing their views as private citizens, Center for Educated Georgia Chairman Giulio Gianturco, Hapeville Charter School seventh grade teacher Marcus Williams, and Verdalia Turner, president of the Georgia Federation of Teachers. 

Autry, Hotchkiss, Barksdale, and Turner opposed the amendment while Gianturco and Williams supported it. Dickerson said she would vote against the amendment, and Williams, while she was a candidate for state House District 92, had said she opposed the amendment as well. Opponents of the amendment were quick to point out they did not oppose charter schools and that RCPS had a charter school and magnet school in its system. Supporters of the amendment were equally quick to point out they did not oppose public schools.

State Rep. Dar’shun Kendrick (Decatur-D) first gave a brief description of how HB1192 came about, saying the Democratic members were able to negotiate some of the language of the question since the Republican majority did not have the 120 votes necessary. “It actually started out a lot worse than it was,” she said. “It still does give the state too much discretion.” 

Opponents of the amendment said charter schools performed about the same or worse as public schools but would receive a higher rate of funding per student than public school students. 

Superintendent Richard Autry said in 2010-2011, 73 percent of Georgia’s public schools made Adequate Yearly Progress and 70 percent of Georgia’s charter schools made AYP. AYP status was under the federal No Child Left Behind program that Georgia was recently exempted from.

Funding was one of the main concerns of opponents. Barksdale said the charter schools would be funded at a higher rate per student than public school students.

Hotchkiss questioned where the money would be coming from to fund new state approved charter schools when public schools have not been fully funded in years. “Since 2003, $53.9M of earned state funds has not been received (by Rockdale County Public Schools),” she said. “My number one question to anyone wanting to vote yes is where are the funds coming from that have now been found?”

Control over state tax dollars that would go with students that attend charter schools and control over decision making, and an extra layer of bureaucratic redundancy were also big concerns for opponents. They pointed out there already was a system to appeal to the state Department of Education if a local school board turned down a charter school application.

Autry said, “What this does is set up a dual funding system. You’ve got a state funding system and a local funding system… I have a difficult time relinquishing taxpayer money and control to state legislators who are far removed from what our needs are in Rockdale County.

“ I just can’t condone that. I just can’t support that, taking the decision making authority from the electorate. You don’t like what’s going on with our school system, you have a vote.” 

However, the charter school board that would be created with the amendment would consist of political appointees, said Barksdale.  

Fears of a defacto resegregated system with select students at charter schools and everybody else at public schools, if the amendment were to pass, were also expressed.

“I think it will be detrimental to all education in the state of Georgia,” Barksdale said. He remembered the desegregation of schools when he was a student. “My senior year was the first year they did away with the dual system. I don’t want to go back.”

Ga. Federation of Teachers President Verdallia Turner described the amendment in the starkest terms, saying this would be a money maker for certain companies that could be seen funding the pro-amendment campaign and candidates’ campaigns and arm twisting and deal making with other politicians. “This is the beginning of privatizing education in Georgia. It’s resegregation by class and by color. It’s unfair. The Governor should be ashamed of himself and the people who have pushed this amendment on the people of Georgia.”

However, supporters of the amendment pointed to the school systems in Fulton and DeKalb counties and reminded the audience not all school districts had a functioning school board and school system. This amendment would give students in those systems an option, they said.

Williams drew upon his experience teaching at Fulton County’s public school system and at Hapeville Charter Academy. “Every county is not as astute as Rockdale County in ensuring every child has an education,” he said. “The authority and freedom I have in my classroom, I believe charter schools are a great alternative if traditional schools are not your option.”

Gianturco also drew upon his experience as a businessman and his personal experience mentoring at-risk students and seeing them excel after being moved from a failing school to a better school where they were challenged academically. 

“This issue is much bigger than Rockdale County,” Gianturco said. Georgia’s educational ranking is a big concern from a business and economic perspective. Education is one of the top five factors businesses look at before deciding where to locate, he said. “We’re not ranked very high. We have to look at other ways of educating,” he said. In his experience in the business world, “When it was time for a turnaround, the only way to do it was to have a stand-alone entity” that would pass on lessons and begin dialogue to the rest of the field or company, he said.

Board member Darlene Hotchkiss responded, “There are ways to produce quality students for the workforce… We’re nothing new. We didn’t invent the wheel. But it can get done.”