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November 01, 2012Voters living outside metro Atlanta or larger Georgia school districts might mistakenly believe that the proposed constitutional Amendment 1 on the November ballot has little relevance to the their own children's education. After all, charter schools are virtually non-existent in rural and small-town Georgia, largely because charter operators find it economically impractical to open charter schools in areas without sufficient numbers of "consumers" (that is, students).
In truth, Amendment 1 will have very real and very damaging consequences for public schools throughout the state – especially those in the least populous and least wealthy school districts. By creating a new state government agency that will establish a new system of state-funded charter schools, hundreds of millions of dollars will be re-directed to those state schools and away from local public schools.
Georgia's K-12 education is already suffering mightily from the continuing "austerity cuts" that, according to the Department of Education, have decimated state funding for public education by $5.7 billion over the past 10 years.
One important point needs to be clarified: Amendment 1 has absolutely nothing to do with whether charter schools are a good thing or whether they can continue to be approved throughout the state. Well over 100 charter schools already exist in Georgia, almost all of them approved by locally elected boards of education and unquestionably permitted under the constitution.
The question instead is who should have the authority to approve these charter schools and how our state will pay for them. Amendment 1 will result in the creation of an unelected, politically appointed state commission that can approve charter schools over the objections of locally elected school boards.
These new charter schools will be funded solely by state money (unlike locally chartered schools, which are funded, like all other local schools, by a combination of local and state money). In order to make these new charter schools financially viable, they will receive more than twice the average level of per-student state funding than what is provided for students in local public schools.
Where will the additional money come from to pay for this new bureaucracy and additional statewide system of charter schools? Either a substantial increase in state revenues going to education or a further reduction in state funding to local public schools would be necessary.
In view of the General Assembly's nearly obsessive resistance to revenue increases, any tax increase would seem unlikely. So continuing and even expanding the cuts to the state's funding of regular public schools would seem inevitable.
And which students and schools would be hurt the most as more state funds are siphoned off from local public schools to this new "dual system" of state charter schools? Those in the less populated (and generally poorer) areas of the state will bear a lion's share of the burden.
These are the school districts that rely on state funding (rather than local taxes) for the largest percentage of their budgets, so the re-direction of hundreds of millions of state dollars to state charter schools will have a more severe impact on these schools.
In addition, residents of less-populated school districts are unlikely to enjoy any offsetting "benefits" of having many of these new state charter schools actually located in their districts, precisely because of their low populations.
The legislators (largely from the metro Atlanta area) who strong-armed Amendment 1 through the General Assembly after the Georgia Supreme Court ruled that the state charter commission schools were unconstitutional do not want the voters to know about the severe blow that Amendment 1 would deal to local control of public education and to the funding of local public schools – particularly those outside of the larger population centers.
These are the same people who drafted the ballot language for Amendment 1 that deceives voters into believing that, without the amendment, locally approved charter schools will be in jeopardy.
If you believe that Georgia does not need, and cannot afford, a new politically appointed state bureaucracy that will re-direct precious and dwindling state education dollars away from our existing local schools and students and into a new state charter school system, then you should vote "No" on Amendment 1.
Tom Cox is an Of Counsel attorney at the Atlanta office of Carlock, Copeland and Stair, LLP. His clients have included the Atlanta Public Schools, First Financial Management Corp., Spelman College, Western Union Financial Services, the DeKalb County Schools, Universal Health Services, Inc., the Consortium for Adequate School Funding in Georgia and the Clarke County Schools.