During the Nov. 6 election, Georgia voters will settle one of the most contentious education issues this year, when they vote on whether the state will have the ultimate authority to approve charter schools.
For their part, Rockdale County Public Schools board members and the superintendent made their opposition to the proposed constitutional amendment loud and clear at Thursday’s school board meeting, echoing comments by the state superintendent earlier in the week.
A resolution proposing an amendment to the Constitution of Georgia will be on the ballot for voters, giving them the option to restore a state commission that would issue charters to private operators.
That power is currently reserved for local boards of education, with the state board able to approve charters that the local boards opt out of.
The resolution would re-establish a third party — the Georgia Charter Commission — that would have the final say in whether a charter school can be established.
The commission has existed before, but was considered unconstitutional by the Georgia Supreme Court because it forced local boards to help fund charters they did not approve.
Advocates for the commission argued that local officials were dragging their feet in approving charters.
Superintendent Richard Autry said, “RCPS supports high quality charter schools approved by our local Board of Education.” But, he continued, “RCPS does not support any initiative or legislation that infringes on the decision making authority of our locally elected board of education.”
He also pointed out the amendment and accompanying legislation would take away state and local taxpayer dollars at a time when state school systems already had $5 billion withheld through austerity measures and RCPS has lost $53.9 million.
Plus, on a per-student basis, more state dollars would go to charter school pupils than to regular school system students, Autry said.
“It’s one-and-a-half to two to three times what we get for students, depending on who you talk to. There’s no doubt the state has a formula designed to allot more dollars to charter school students than it does to our public school students,” Autry said.
Roughly half of RCPS’s budget is funded by local tax dollars and half by state funds.
Member Jean Yontz pointed out that students would take local taxpayer dollars with them to the charter schools, even if they are in another county.
School board chair Wales Barksdale said charter schools are allowed to choose which students they take on to educate, whereas public school systems have to educate all students.
Member Darlene Hotchkiss added that most charter schools don’t face the same regulations and requirements in terms of educational testing and provisions that public school systems do.
“When they take local tax dollars for that student that they have set up for a charter school, that also affects the remaining students that we have,” she said.
“They’re going to leave the local school system hanging out in the wind.”
“I have no problem with the state looking at alternatives once they fund us at the level they are supposed to be funding us, which they have not done for years.”
Newly elected members Mandy North and Sharon Pharr, whose terms begin in January, also expressed concerns about the amendment proposal.
“I wouldn’t want the state to be able to create charter schools without the approval from the local school board and the administration and oversight from the local school board,” said North. “It would be a nightmare trying to balance the budget, or trying to predict how much money you’re going to get, how much you’re losing. How many teachers you’re going to need to cut. I would get to the point to where only the people whose parents could afford to get them there. Those who couldn’t afford that would be here.”
Pharr said she had gone back and forth on the question, but ultimately was leaning against it. “I don’t like state controlled schools. They’re trying to do it because public schools have so many issues. They need to address public schools,” she said. “Ultimately it’s a loss of local level control and I don’t want the centralization of education, which is what the state is trying to do.”
On Tuesday, state Superintendent John Barge came out publicly against the amendment, saying he “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.”
He said the General Assembly plans to come up with more than $430 million in new state funds over the next five years to fund the commission and its charter schools.
“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,” said Barge, adding that he “fully supports the continued creation of high quality schools.”
Barge is a part of the Republican Party, which has supported this amendment, including the governor, Nathan Deal.
“I stand with 2/3 of the General Assembly and will uphold the promises I made when I ran for office: Parents and students should have public school options; this is true local control,” Deal’s spokesman told The Associated Press.
House Resolution 1162 will be on the Nov. 6 ballot.
The Gainesville Times contributed to this article.