Dear Editor: On Nov. 6, you will have the opportunity to vote on an amendment to the State Constitution about Charter Schools. As a member of the Rockdale County Board of Education, I have had the chance to really examine the issue so I can make informed decisions as a voter. I would like to make very clear, however, that my opinions as expressed in this editorial should not be construed as the opinion of the Rockdale County Board of Education. These are my views solely as a citizen and voter. I believe that quality charter schools are a good thing and a valuable tool in educating our children. The Rockdale Career Academy is one example of a local charter school. However, I believe that charter schools should be under the auspices of a local school board rather than, as this amendment would allow, having them function as a state-run entity.
In 2008, the Ga. Legislature passed a law allowing the state to create charter schools in districts without any input from the local board or the citizens in that area. Because the responsibility for creating schools is supposed to reside with the local school systems, several county school systems sued the state to halt this activity. In 2011, the Ga. Supreme Court struck down the law. They determined the state was overstepping its power and the law was deemed unconstitutional.
This year a bill to amend the State Constitution to permit the state to create charter schools was submitted to the State Legislature. The question you will see on the ballot in November will be "Shall the Constitution of Georgia be amended to allow state or local approval of public charter schools upon the request of local communities?" On the surface, this sounds like a good thing, but once you scratch the surface things change. Passage of this amendment would re-establish the Charter School Commission, an organization that would answer to no one but the governor, adding another layer of state government to education. Our locally elected school boards currently possess the authority to decide if charter schools are created in their districts. A local school board answers to students, parents and taxpayers. That's called "accountability." It's also called "good sense." Those who live and pay taxes in a community know what kinds of schools their children need. If the charter school amendment is passed, state-level bureaucrats in Atlanta will have the authority to make decisions for the local system.
Many proponents of the amendment say Georgia parents should have school choice. Georgia parents already have school choice. There are more than 200 charter schools in Georgia, and there are plans in the works to create many more.
School systems usually approve a charter school application because the school has a consistent record of, or has demonstrated a capacity for, strong academic results, well trained and high functioning governing boards, financial sustainability, and legal and regulatory compliance. A system of checks and balances is already in place to ensure the needs of all students are met. In fact, if a local school board chooses to deny a charter school petition, the group proposing the charter school can appeal the ruling to the State Department Education. Since 2001, when the first state charter schools were established, the State Department of Education can approve a charter school if the local board had denied the petition.
The proposed constitutional amendment would circumvent this system of checks and balances. It would allow a small group of unelected and unaccountable political appointees and insiders to decide what charters are created. Parents and communities would have no say. Giving an unelected group of bureaucrats the power to create for-profit charter schools at will is simply bad public policy. It's not about meeting the needs of children. It's about handing unprecedented power to Atlanta insiders to dole out money to political allies. This amendment would create another layer of government that will cost millions of your tax dollars to run, not to mention the millions of dollars that will be going to the charter schools.
Where is the state getting the funds to pay for these charter schools? The state has not been able to fully fund public education for the last 10 years or so. Every year, the state imposes austerity reductions on every school system and has underfunded Georgia students more than $4 billion dollars ($53 million dollars for Rockdale County alone) in the last 10 years. The state said the state charter schools will be subject to the same austerity reductions as the local schools. I am skeptical. The question is where did the state find this money if it can't afford to fully fund education right now? It sounds like a raw deal to the tax payers and Georgia students.
Academia, a for-profit charter school management company out of Florida, has bypassed local governments in Florida and partnered with real estate companies that lease school buildings to the company so it can avoid paying city and county taxes. That's not competition - that's "gaming the system" at the expense of children and taxpayers. Families for Better Public Schools, a pro-charter school organization has taken $50,000 in funding from Charter Schools USA of Jacksonville, Fla. Our Governor, the House Majority Leader, and the Speaker Pro Tem, (who is the author of the Charter School Amendment), have also taken campaign contributions from Charter Schools USA. (I verified this information on the state ethics website.) It kind of makes you go, "HHMMM."
Most people involved in education oppose the amendment, including State School Superintendent Dr. John Barge (a Republican), the Rockdale County Board of Education, the Georgia School Boards Association, the Georgia School Superintendents Association, the Georgia PTA, the Georgia Federation of Teachers, the Georgia Association of Educators, the Professional Association of Georgia Educators, the Georgia Retired Educators Association, the Southern Education Foundation and the Georgia Association of Educational Leaders. All of these experts can't be wrong. Most of our locally elected State Legislators and The Rockdale Republican Party are not in favor of this amendment. The truth is, those who work most closely with children and schools know this amendment is bad for kids, bad for parents, bad for schools, bad for taxpayers, bad for Georgia, and brought to you by the same people who brought you the T-SPLOST.
If you would like any additional information, please contact me at Brad.RockdaleBoE@Comcast.net.