OPINION: Charter amendment doesn’t add up to choice, only bureaucracy

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The Georgia Supreme Court struck down the ability of the state Department of Education to grant an appeal to a proposed charter school and override the local board of education.

In a 4-3 vote, the majority of justices agreed that the state does not have the constitutional right to interfere in local school administration of schools which the constitution reserves for the local school boards.

Since the state legislature does not like to be frustrated in those things it wishes to do, naturally the leadership put a constitutional amendment on the ballot. You know this is a top-down mandate by the way the campaign for the amendment has shaped up, and a sorry mess it has been.

First, in the legislative session in which the General Assembly has 40 days to conduct all its business, guess what the first item of business was? Yep, it was the vote to put the charter amendment on the ballot. It failed.

For a bonus of 10 points, guess what the second item of business was for a vote at the legislative session? Bingo, a second vote for the charter amendment. This time it passed. That means arms were twisted and promises made to ensure that first things got done first.

Well, that’s politics. But it was a red flag all the same, showing that powerful people were playing hardball.

Then the details began to come out. Behind the mantra that the amendment was “for the children,” and “to give parents choice,” there was a clamp down on any discussion of the ballot initiative that did not originate with its supporters.

The Fulton County School System, the Gwinnett County Public Schools and Georgia School Boards Association were all hit with injunctive lawsuits to shut down any discussion of the amendment that might cast anything but glowing admiration of the legislation. The courts ruled that exercise of free speech is still one of our basic freedoms.

Obviously, there is a great deal of fear about discussion of what passage of this would mean. Because this not about parental choices – they already have that – and being “for the children,” whatever that means. It is about money and power. The money comes from the for-profit schools that are licking their lips to get on the generous funding the amendment would release for them.

New charter schools would receive student funding at 2.5 times that of students in public schools (which includes existing charter schools). Never mind that these new charter schools will not have the investment in bricks and mortar; school buses; drivers, athletic fields and programs and administration. Nor are charter schools required to use certified teachers. The common argument for this is that it allows a retired physics professor to teach at these schools. Yet the reality is it allows people to teach English who do not have a degree in English or even a degree at all. But they work for less pay, which is what for-profit schools are all about.

It would allow the creation of a seven-member state charter commission which would be appointed – three seats by the governor, two seats by the lieutenant governor and two seats by the speaker of the House. Now you get an idea of where the push is coming from.

No less an expert on charter schools than State School Superintendent John Barge said at the rate of seven new charter schools a year – the rate at which the previous commission approved them – and factoring in the increased spending given to them, it would put an additional burden on the state school budget of $430 million annually in five years.

He also points out there are 72 public school districts operating at a deficit, in whole or in part because of increased cuts to the school budget by the legislature. With more cuts in public school funding, it would not be long before school districts begin to go bankrupt.

The proponents of the amendment say these new charter schools will help those underfunded school systems by giving the parents there a choice. What evidence is there that there will be any charter schools in poor rural areas of the state where there is little money and fewer students? Why are there no charter schools in those areas now? This amendment won’t bring schools to those districts, and if they do they will put the most burden on the public schools there because they are most dependent on dwindling state support.

There has been a complete rush job to get this amendment pushed through. And once voted in, it would be the devil to get rid of it.

A maxim in government we all might want to remember goes like this: Laws made in haste may be regretted at one’s leisure. This goes double for constitutional amendments.