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Voters to settle charter debate

Teachers, school leaders, state reps can’t agree

Voters to settle charter debate

Voters to settle charter debate


In a pitched battle over the state’s role in creating and funding charter schools, the voices are loud, passionate and coming from several sides.
On an issue that will ultimately be determined by Georgia voters Tuesday, district superintendents, charter school leaders, columnists  and elected officials — including several congressmen, State School Superintendent John Barge, and Gov. Nathan Deal — have all weighed in.
The contention centers around a proposed amendment to the Georgia state constitution that would, if passed, guarantee the state power to approve and finance public charter schools.
A “yes” vote would re-establish a state Charter Schools Commission that could overrule decisions by local school boards opposing new charters; it would also provide equitable funding to new and existing public charter schools, which, for the most part, receive fewer dollars per-student than schools in traditional districts.
Amendment backers, a group that includes Deal, say the proposal is about offering Georgia children and parents more educational options.
Opponents, Barge among them, counter by saying the amendment duplicates existing powers of the state Board of Education and threatens to siphon money away from district-run schools.
Even teachers themselves can’t agree.
“What we have asked for since inception is to receive equitable funding. We’ve always believed that the tax money should follow the child,” said Benji Lewis, a Health, Child and Family Development teacher at Charter Conservatory for Liberal Arts and Technology in Statesboro — who points out that charter students and parents pay the same taxes as those in traditional systems.  “A ‘yes’ vote would be huge. It’s like a milestone.”
Indeed the amendment would provide greater funding for charters. But, according to school districts, that money would be taken from already burdened and struggling schools.
“Personally, I am against the amendment. I’m not against charter schools, just the amendment,” said Lisa Minick, a senior English teacher at Statesboro High School. “The funding is a huge concern for me, as a classroom teacher. I’ve been teaching for 30 years and this year is the first time I’ve experienced a furlough that will cost me two days with my students.
“We are shortening school years because of extreme cuts in funding and we already have to be creative with funds so we can do everything we need to do,” she said. “The state hasn’t been able to fully fund education in almost five years.”
Of course, charters too — public charters do receive some state money — are feeling the pinch, and have always had to do more with less. A “yes” vote would only serve to even the playing field, Lewis said.
“If this amendment passed, we could branch out, explore more and have the monetary needs to bring in extra resources to do a better job of reaching our kids on a daily basis,” he said. “The more money per child gives us more opportunities to reach our kids in dynamic ways. We can have more resources in our classrooms. We already do a great job of taking our kids, but this would give us that boost.”
Money is not the only point of contention.
Opponents of the amendment argue that a state Charter Schools Commission would simply duplicate the power of the State Board of Education. The state board can already establish charters that are  rejected by local school boards and allocate funding.
“The commission will be doing what the state Department of Education already does,” Minick said. “You would end up with a duplication of services and would just have another entity to fund.”
Proponents are concerned, however, that without passage of the amendment, the state board’s power would be challenged next, threatening more than 200 charter schools in operation now.
That is why supporters are trying desperately to appeal to voters.
“I hope voters go to the polls with a mind set on the children. I want voters to put everything aside and think about the kids’ needs,” Lewis said. “As a voter, they have already had their education, but there are kids out there who haven’t and need what we, and other charter schools, can provide.
If the vote does result in re-establishment of the state Charter Schools Commission, it would comprise seven members appointed by the Board of Education. The board would choose from nominees selected by elected officials.
Nominees would have to hold an undergraduate college degree.

Jeff Harrison may be reached at (912) 489-9454.

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