Proposed charter school amendment: Fayette battle lines drawn

One of the hottest political topics statewide is the proposed state constitutional amendment that would create a new state board empowered to approve public charter school applications.

Currently such duties are being handled by local boards of education and the state Board of Education but charter advocates claim that both have unfairly denied competent charter school applications on the basis of losing local school funding.

According to the legislation (House Bill 797), the seven members of the Charter School Commission would be appointed from a pool of nominees recommended by the governor, the president of the Senate and the speaker of the House of Representatives.

Critics of the amendment cite this politically-charged power structure as one of the fatal flaws of the plan, since none of the seven charter school commission members would be elected on a statewide basis and thus be accountable to voters.

The state already has 177 charter schools, some of which have been approved by local and state boards of education; others were approved by a predecessor of the Charter Schools Commission that was disbanded after a Georgia Supreme Court decision that struck it down as being against the Georgia Constitution.

Some charter schools are operated by public school systems as traditional public schools, while others are operated by private for-profit companies, and often students are chosen by lottery because parent demand outstrips the charter school’s capacity.

In either case, the per-pupil state funding for charter school students is significantly higher than the per-pupil funding amount for regular K-12 public schools, according to an analysis conducted by the office of Gov. Nathan Deal.

The funding for “brick and mortar” schools shows the difference, as such public schools average a per-pupil state funding level of $4,290 compared to $6,392 in state dollars per-pupil for charter schools.

This $2,102 difference per student has been chalked up to the fact that charter schools that are not operated by a public school system do not get local property tax revenues, which average out to be more than $4,000 statewide.

Charter school advocates have attacked the funding disparity as an issue that needs to be addressed in the future. One of the 2012 legislative priorities of the Georgia Charter Schools Association is for “equitable funding.”

“GSCA believes that charter school students, being public school students, should be funded equally and equitably to traditional public school students,” according to a statement on the GCSA web site.

Charter schools that are not operated by a public school system are still required to be open to all students in their given geographic area.

The funding issue is one of the reasons that the Fayette County Board of Education on Sept. 17 passed a resolution opposing the charter school amendment.

Voters statewide will be weighing in on the topic in the Nov. 6 election, and polls are already open for early voting in Fayetteville, Peachtree City and Tyrone. The amendment in question is listed as “amendment 1.”

In addition to conveying on the CSC the power to approve or deny charter school petitions, HB 797 also grants it the authority to “non renew or terminate state charter school petitions.”

The legislation also allows the CSC “at its discretion ... to preliminarily approve a petition for a state charter school before the petitioner has secured space, equipment or personnel, if the petitioner indicates such preliminary approval is necessary for it to raise working capital.”

Local resident and Tea Party stalwart Angela Bean is one of the voices advocating a “no” vote for the charter school amendment. Among her concerns is the creation of “a third level of bureaucracy that is going to cost us.” She suggested the commission, even though it is unpaid, could cost taxpayers $1 million a year.

Bean also said leaving schools in the hands of a local school board gives parents, community leaders and other interested parties more control because they can at least vote out ineffective school board members and replace them with effective ones.

Because the CSC would not be elected, there is no such power given to the voters, Bean lamented.

“How are we going to fire an unelected board,” Bean said.

Bean blasted charter school advocates for misleading the public by saying control of schools should be wrestled away from labor unions. She noted there are no labor unions of any sort in Georgia, which is a “right to work” state.

Bean also was critical of language that allows state charter schools to accept funding from any source. She suggested that an international company or a questionable group such as the Ku Klux Klan could help fund charter schools and be able to influence what is taught at those schools.

Furthermore, Bean said, because the process would be authorized as a part of the Georgia Constitution, such a school would be allowed to sue the state for discrimination if its charter school application isn’t approved. She cited an essay by a constitutional attorney in Florida that said by creating a constitutional amendment, the state will be “extending rights to all people without discrimination.”

“That’s where I get the heartburn,” Bean said. “How can we afford the lawsuits that will ensue?”

Another worry is that charter schools are also adopting the Common Core Curriculum standards that are being imposed by the federal government as opposed to standards developed by individual states and their communities, Bean said.

Peter Pfeifer
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Charter battle?

Weird. I could have sworn that a "battle" involved at least two sides but I only see one here.