ATLANTA — The debate over a proposed constitutional amendment that would expand state influence over charter schools has been fierce, complete with lawsuits. But the details can get lost in the back-and-forth.
The ballot question seems simple enough: "Shall the Constitution of Georgia be amended to allow state or local approval of public charter schools upon the request of local communities?"
Gov. Nathan Deal, who headlines the amendment's backers, says the proposal is about offering Georgia children more educational options. Deal's fellow Republican, state Superintendent of Education John Barge, is the most high-profile opponent.
He counters that the amendment duplicates existing authority of the state Board of Education and threatens to siphon money away from existing public schools.
Yet the issue isn't a fundamental choice over whether to allow privately run, but publicly financed schools in Georgia. More than 200 charter schools operate now. And the state already plays a role in choosing charters and regulating them. So what, exactly, is the referendum about?
Under existing law, a prospective school operator can seek a school charter from a local school board. If it is denied, it can appeal to the state Board of Education, which is composed entirely of gubernatorial appointees.
In 2008, Georgia lawmakers created a separate state charter school commission to consider applications for charters. But opponents of that law challenged, eventually winning a divided Georgia Supreme Court ruling that said the state constitution restricts control of public education — and thus issuing charters — to local school boards.
In response, Deal and charter school supporters earlier this year pushed the amendment to specifically allow the kind of state commission the court jettisoned. An accompanying law, triggered only if the amendment passes, would re-establish the State Charter Schools Commission.
Schools that the original commission approved are still in operation.
The revived commission would comprise seven members appointed by the Board of Education. But the board would be choosing from nominees by elected officials. The governor would submit nominations for three seats. The lieutenant governor and House speaker would control two seats each. Nominees would have to hold an undergraduate college degree. The commission would elect its own leaders.
The proposed plan does not change existing requirements that the actual applicant be a non-profit, Georgia based entity. In practice, that still allows the charter entities to contract with for-profit companies that run schools, taking a management fee over the operating cost.
An important distinction in the debate involves the difference between a local charter school and a state charter school. Those definitions, in turn, affect how a charter school is approved and how it receives taxpayer money.
A local charter is one with a "defined attendance zone," like the traditional neighborhood school. That could be a completely new school, with an outside organization seeking the charter, or it could be driven by the community trying to turn an existing public school into an independent entity. Either way, those applicants still would start at their local school boards, though the new commission would be able to override any denials, as the state Board of Education does now.
Local charters are funded similarly to local schools: They get money from state coffers and from locally generated taxes that support traditional public schools.
State charter applicants, meanwhile, would either have a statewide attendance zone or successfully argue that their proposed model warrants the elevated status. The law only outlines the "special characteristics" of a state charter school, giving the commission wide latitude to make the distinction. Those applicants could bypass local school boards and go straight the commission for a charter. The Board of Education could override the commission's decision on state charter schools.
State charters are financed entirely with money appropriated by the General Assembly. On one hand, that means that a state charter doesn't depend on local property and sales taxes that support existing public schools. Yet the state charters — however many would come into existence — represent another line item in the state budget that lawmakers must fund out of existing revenues.
There are also competing variables when considering the financial effect of charters on existing schools. When a traditional school, financed in part on enrollment, has fewer students, it ostensibly has a lower overhead. That could be true where enrollment drops in numbers that would allow a simple reduction in teachers, without increasing class sizes for those units that remain. But depending on the numbers from school to school, enrollment transfers could force small teaching forces with larger classes. Additionally, certain overhead costs — transportation, non-classroom personnel like librarians and physical education and physical plant expenses like maintenance and utilities — are less flexible, if not absolutely fixed.
For Barge and a host of professional educator groups, that makes the proposed amendment an unjustified threat to existing schools. Barge said in a recent interview that the state shouldn't divert any existing education spending until all Georgia systems restore a full, 180-day school year with smaller classroom sizes.
Deal answered in a recent public appearance, "It's important to remember these (charters) are still public schools."