ATLANTA — Bucking his party on an issue dear to many conservatives, Georgia's Republican education superintendent has come out against a constitutional amendment to guarantee the state's authority to charter independent public schools.
John Barge said he believes the proposal threatens local control and state financial support for traditional public schools. That argument puts the superintendent in line with teachers' associations and the Georgia Democratic Party as the issue intensifies leading up to the Nov. 6 general election.
"As we are looking at the funding issues across Georgia, we are in a dire situation," Barge said. He ticked off a list of statistics: 121 of 180 Georgia systems with fewer than 180 days of classroom instruction, 4,400 teachers out of a job since 2008, public school enrollment up in the same span.
"Putting this whole picture together, I could not stand by without voicing my opposition to sending any money anywhere else until our children are in schools 180 days and our teachers are at full pay," Barge said.
The superintendent said he still supports "quality charter schools" and said existing law allows local school boards to authorize the independent campuses. More than 100 charter schools operate in Georgia.
In Statesboro, home to one of 15 charter schools across Georgia with state-approved charters, the reaction to Barge’s position was mixed, but measured.
Corliss Reese, the director of Statesboro’s Charter Conservatory for Liberal Arts and Technology, said that while he has "a great deal of respect for Superintendent Barge, " he sees advantages to an alternate body to authorize charter schools "as some districts' boards rarely read charter petitions that are submitted."
"There will probably not be a fix that will make everyone happy, but the best would be for equalization of funds among schools and districts and continue to perhaps operate under the current system," Reese said. "It would be great to have local partnerships and authorization, but until more local boards are properly trained on charter school benefits to the educational community it will continue to be an issue that we all grapple with."
Bulloch County Schools Superintendent Charles Wilson said he agrees with Barge but added that there is no simple solution.
“The issue with charter schools is complex and has become unnecessarily divisive. We all want what is best for our state and local communities,” Wilson said. “This means that we must figure out how to develop a model of excellence for all students that is fair, while being responsible to all taxpayers and constituents. This requires us to be wise, purposeful and patient as we define our common goal and determine how to achieve it.
“It also requires us to be committed and tireless in working together,” he continued. “Tearing ourselves apart out of frustration, especially at the cost of our students and taxpayers, is unacceptable.”
Barge informed his fellow Republicans, Gov. Nathan Deal and Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, of his position Tuesday morning. All three were elected in 2010, as Republicans swept statewide offices and solidified control of the General Assembly. Deal personally lobbied lawmakers on the amendment and is urging Georgia voters to support it in November.
The General Assembly endorsed the amendment after the Georgia Supreme Court struck down an earlier law that allowed the state to create the publicly financed, but privately operated schools. The court ruled that the existing Georgia Constitution gives local boards control over K-12 education, including issuing independent charters. Advocates for charter schools argued that local officials were dragging their feet in approving charter applications. The constitutional change and a separate statute would restore a state commission that would issue charters to private operators.
The superintendent, who is not a high-profile player in state politics, said he told the governor he would not campaign actively against the amendment or raise money for opponents.
Deal wasted little time in criticizing Barge's announcement. "I stand with 2/3 of the General Assembly and will uphold the promises I made when I ran for office: Parents and students should have public school options; this is true local control," Deal said in a statement issued through a spokesman.
The governor also framed Barge's position as a reversal.
In 2010, Barge agreed in writing with the Georgia Charter Schools Association position that local school boards, the state school board and the state charter commission — which the Supreme Court nixed — should all have authority "to approve and monitor charter schools."
He added a caveat at the time: "I find it greatly disappointing that we need another administrative body to do something that the local, and ultimately, the state board of education should be able to do."
In response to Deal, Barge said Tuesday that governor is "confusing support for quality charter schools with support for this charter amendment."
Barge noted that state law allows local charter applicants to appeal denials by local school boards. He said he has only once been asked to intervene in a denial. That Fulton County case never reached the state school board, he said, because the operator failed to meet charter standards.
Staff Writers Jeff Harrison and Jason Wermers contributed to this report.