Voters overwhelmingly approve charter schools amendment to constitution

Opponents may continue fight over wording on ballot in court



Georgia voters across the state overwhelmingly passed a constitutional amendment to establish a charter schools commission that will provide a third pathway for the creation of start-up charter schools.

Referred to as Amendment 1, the measure allows a seven-member Charter School Commission to be appointed by political leaders with the power to approve charter schools in local districts — without the approval of the local board of election.

The amendment to the Georgia Constitution was necessary to overturn the state Supreme Court’s decision two years ago, which ruled the previous State Charter Commission unconstitutional.

Proponents of the amendment say parents should have more choices than just those allowed by the local boards of education. State Rep. Jan Jones (R-Milton), who authored the amendment, has long maintained the state government should have a more meaningful role in education than just being a check in the mail.

But for systems such as the Fulton County School System, which funds its operations with nearly 70 percent local tax dollars, the issue centered on local control of local schools.

Marc Spratt of Alpharetta voted “yes” because he believes many local school boards are reluctant to approve charters out of fear of competition.

“I suspect the opposition was concerned about money and wanted to ensure they maintain as much control over funds as possible,” said Spratt. “Choice is best for the children.”

But for opponents of the measure, the issue went beyond choice. Ron Jackson, a former member of the Fulton County School Board, said the issue was about politics, not children and choice.

“As someone who has voted for many, many charter petitions while on Fulton’s school board, I love charter schools,” said Jackson. “They make traditional public schools better, as traditional public schools make charters better — competition is good for everybody.”

His issue was with the wording on the ballot, which was written in a way that had nothing to do with the intent of the legislation — and nearly guaranteed its passage.

“It was written in such a way as to be misleading to those voters who had not looked deeply into the issue. Who wouldn’t support something as it was described on the ballot? It’s like asking: Who is for mom and apple pie?” said Jackson. “The question on the ballot was written to almost guarantee passage.”

In fact, a group of opponents of the amendment are seeking to overturn the vote, claiming the wording on the ballot was so misleading as to be illegal.

While the amendment sought to establish a State Charter School Commission, the wording on the ballot did not mention this structure. Instead it asked voters, “Shall the Constitution of Georgia be amended to allow state or local approval of public charter schools upon the request of local communities?"

The charter school amendment was opposed by nearly every school system across the state, along with the state PTA and Georgia School Boards Association, but apparently resounded with voters who approved the initiative by a wide margin, with nearly 60 percent of voters saying “yes.” More than 375,000 votes were cast on both sides of the issue, with strong support coming from the rural areas of Georgia.

Currently, applications for charter schools are submitted to the local board of education. If approved, the charter school receives both state and local funds for its operations. If denied by the local board of education, petitioners can apply to the Georgia Department of Education to become a state charter school. In that case, only state funds are available for operations.

The newly approved constitutional amendment will provide a third path, allowing petitioners to apply directly to the appointed Charter Schools Commission for approval in their local districts. While proponents of the measure say local funds will not be diverted to these schools, the funding formula has yet to be fully outlined by political leaders. Those decisions will likely be made during the upcoming legislative session, which begins in January.

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