State Rep. Alisha Morgan, an Austell Democrat, was one of six state legislators who co-sponsored the legislation for the proposed amendment. Her husband, David, is a member of Cobb’s school board and a lobbyist for a school-choice group called American Federation for Children.
“We need this Constitutional amendment to clarify that educating children is a shared responsibility between the local school district and state, to make sure that every child gets a quality education,” Alisha Morgan said.
If Georgia voters approve the amendment, a revivied State Charter School Commission would offer a second chance for charter-school petitioners who were rejected by a local school board.
The state would fund its charter schools, though state education officials insist that none of the local school tax dollars would be diverted to the charter schools. Per-student funding varies by district and needs of the individual student.
The Commission would consist of seven volunteers who are only reimbursed for mileage, Morgan said. The governor would appoint three members, and the lieutenant governor and speaker of the house would each appoint two.
“The commission would be people who are parents and charter-school experts who would review this application, see if they got a fair chance at the local school district level,” Morgan said. “If in fact they found it to be a viable school, they would approve it. That recommendation would then go to the State Board of Education for approval.”
The budget for Commission staff would be set by the General Assembly, Morgan said. She expects only one or two staff members, to be housed in the state education department.
The Commission, which would be established by February, Morgan said, would function nearly the same as it did before 2010, when the state supreme court struck it down as unconstitutional.
“It worked very successfully,” Morgan said. “Over 60 applications came through and around 15 were authorized, so that speaks to an objective and rigorous process in place.”
But the state board of education can already grant a charter, a point of contention for critics who question the need for yet another entity.
“This is not about the 1.6 million children in Georgia’s public schools. This is about the desire of out-of-state businesses to make money,” said state Rep. David Wilkerson, another Austell Democrat.
He opposes the state creating another “taxpayer funded agency controlled by the governor.”
“This is an attempt to change the state constitution to allow seven political appointees … to make decisions that would ignore input from the community and parents,” Wilkerson said. “The strong-arm tactics that we have seen by those at the Capitol trying to change the Constitution are just the beginning if voters give Gov. (Nathan) Deal even more unchecked power.”
But the board of the Marietta-based Georgia Tea Party’s board recently voted to support the amendment, said J.D. Van Brink, the group’s chair.
“Our schools are in drastic need of improvement,” he said.
Another tea party board member, Tom Maloy, believes it provide an “easier track” for new charter schools.
“I personally think that people on school boards are trying to hold back charter schools on the local level because they see it as a threat financially,” he said. “If they really studied it, I think they would see the value in seeing this charter school amendment.”
Maloy said he does not believe it will increase the size of state government.
“I can’t see that it’s really going to increase the bureaucracy that much, if any,” he said. “That’s one of the things the Tea Party would have been on the look out for.”
It’s no surprise that most school-board members in Cobb and all seven of those in Marietta are against the amendment. Parent Teacher Associations across Cobb have passed a resolution opposing it.
Only Cobb members David Morgan and Tim Stultz support it.
Brett Bittner, who was elected to Marietta’s school board on July 31, is among those opposed.
“If charter schools are the panacea for our education results woes, why not advocate waiving the mandates and regulations from Washington and Atlanta for all students in all schools, rather than a few who complete the charter petition process?”
The issue could turn out to be key in the battle for the newly-redrawn state senate 6th district, which encompasses parts of Smyrna, Vinings and Buckhead. The seat is currently held by Democrat Doug Stoner, who opposes the amendment. But Hunter Hill, his Republican opponent in what is now a heavily Republican district, supports the amendment.
Stoner echoed Wilkerson in arguing the amendment is not really about charter schools.
“Instead, it creates an avenue for the state to siphon millions of dollars away from local schools and give handouts to well connected, out of state, for-profit charter school companies,” Stoner said. “I stand for education reform, but I oppose sweetheart deals dressed up as reform.”
Hill, though, said he supports the amendment “because its intent is to stimulate learning and to provide parents more options as they see fit for their children.
“No two children are the same, and because they don’t learn the same way that means we need more tools, choices and flexibility in education,” Hill said.
Both school superintendents in Cobb have made personal contributions to Vote SMART, the campaign group fighting the amendment. Through Sept. 28, that group has raised $105,079 for the opposition.
Meanwhile, Families for Better Public Schools, which is supporting the amendment, has raised more than half a million dollars, much of it from out of state.
Cobb has two charter schools — Kennesaw Charter Science and Math Academy, and International Academy of Smyrna — both of which have charters granted by the Cobb school board. But leaders of both schools declined to comment on the amendment.
“International Academy of Smyrna doesn’t have a position on the proposed constitutional amendment,” said Larry Ramsey, who chairs that school’s board. “As you know, there are legal limits in this area when taxpayer funds are involved.”
Only one of Cobb’s county commissioners has taken a stand on the amendment.
JoAnn Birrell, who represents northeast Cobb, said: “I have just grown fond of charter schools and what they accomplished and I think it gives parents a choice.”
None of Cobb’s six mayors have gone on record supporting or opposing the amendment.
State lawmakers who support the amendment include Sen. Steve Thompson (D-Marietta), Sen. Judson Hill (R-east Cobb), Rep. Stacey Evans (D-Smyrna), Rep. Ed Setzler (R-Acworth), Rep. Rich Golick (R-Smyrna), Rep. Don Parsons (R-east Cobb), Rep. Earl Ehrhart (R-Powder Springs), Rep. Sam Teasley (R-Marietta) and Rep. John Carson (R-east Cobb).
Thompson said he “finally decided to vote for it,” but said that if legislators came back wanting a full voucher program so that the “tax money could follow the child to private school,” he would “never” vote for that.
But Ehrhart, who said he has always been a supporter of parental choice in education and who sent his own children to private school, said education dollars should follow the child.
“Parents and not government are the purest form of local control. Just look around and see what local school governments have done to the opportunities for education of Georgia’s children. Every day brings a new story of school systems cheating or losing accreditation. This in no way supports our state’s children and we must change if we are to serve all Georgia’s kids,” Ehrhart said.
“School boards … not teachers, are failing our kids everyday and they see their control slipping if this passes. This is a great outcome for kids and a poor one for the status quo of failed education bureaucrats. Their excuse is always the same: ‘Send us more money and over time we will fix the problem.’ It has yet to succeed. If that is your child, you cannot as a responsible parent accept such an excuse, and you cannot wait for them to get it right.”
Ehrhart also rejects the argument that passage increases the size of state government.
“I have heard this straw man from the opponents of quality education before,” he said. “The commission is not a new agency whatsoever and it does not increase the size nor expense of government.”
Setzler said the amendment is about putting parents in control of their children’s education.
“This is being done in other states,” he said. “We are looking to have an impact on traditional schools … create competition.”
Golick supports the resolution because he thinks families in the Smyrna-Vinings area that he represents “want the option of pursuing an alternative path for establishing a charter school if they see fit.”
Parsons believes approving the amendment would give parents or guardians with children in underperforming schools more options.
Teasley echoed Parsons, saying: “I believe that anything that we can do to empower our parents and students is beneficial both to the student and to our community.”
Carson, a father of two children and a self-described “fervent supporter of public education,” said he supports the amendment to give students more public educational opportunities.