The state constitution specifies that every child in Georgia is entitled to free public education. It describes education as a responsibility of the state and function of local school systems. Public school budgets and policy decisions are under the control of locally elected boards of education as long as minimum state requirements are met.
Local school boards in Georgia presently have the sole authority to approve or deny applications for charter schools within their districts. These schools are funded using the same formula as traditional schools but operate somewhat independently while remaining under the ultimate supervision of locally elected boards of education.
The Georgia General Assembly struck a blow to local control by placing a constitutional amendment on the November ballot that allows the state to approve charter school applications from parent groups or other interested parties, to fully fund the new schools, and operate them within the boundaries of local school districts.
Passage of the proposed amendment will play havoc with the state education funding formula and eventually lead to a dual system of education featuring “have” and “have not” schools in the same communities.
Georgia law prescribes the Quality Basic Education (QBE) funding formula in which a portion of per pupil expenditures is provided by the state with the remainder funded by local taxation. The local share of a school system’s budget is generated primarily by property taxes. Fayette County levies the maximum legal millage rate on property taxes and benefits from a special local option sales tax to enrich school programs.
Education in Georgia has many shortcomings but there is not a problem with the mechanics of the state funding formula or the existing procedure for establishing charter schools. The proposed amendment to the constitution is a back door diversion of state taxpayer dollars to quasi-private schools with minimal accountability to those who foot the bill.
A recent ruling by the Supreme Court of Georgia confirmed the right of local school boards to approve or deny charters applications without state interference. The ruling led to an overreaction by members of the legislature and now the voters must pick up the pieces by deciding a complex and confusing issue in November.
Local boards of education are held accountable to parents and other taxpayers at the ballot box. There is no assurance that an appointed state commission to oversee charter schools will be accountable since members of the proposed commission are not required to face voters in an election.
There is also uncertainty about administrative control, funding sources from the state budget, and the role of parents in making decisions about the operation of state operated charter schools. There are other unanswered questions.
What about requirements for admission and eligibility? Will students be required to pass a test for admission? Will state charter schools be allowed to recruit top athletes to dominate in sports? Who will guard against religious instruction in publicly funded charter schools? Who will prohibit the promotion of atheism or intervention of secular humanism in the curriculum?
The emergence of charter schools was a result of the school-based management movement of the 1970s. The charter concept was created to help principals and teachers cut red tape and avoid bureaucratic obstacles. Central to the charter concept is a formal commitment from building level personnel to design and execute an innovative educational delivery system in exchange for exemption from cumbersome red tape and mundane paperwork requirements. Accountability is an important part of the charter concept and academic results must be closely monitored.
Charter schools are not private schools; however, some charter school proponents favor contracting with private management companies to manage the schools on a “for profit” basis. Charters can be highly effective and should be nurtured under the watchful eye of locally elected school boards instead of a management company with an eye toward the bottom line.
The political side of the charter school controversy was dramatic during the legislative session and the drama will continue until the issue is decided by the voters in November. Although most legislation is signed at the state capitol, Governor Nathan Deal recently chose to sign the state charter school enabling legislation during a VIP ceremony at the Cherokee Charter Academy in Canton.
The Cherokee Charter Academy opened in 2011 in the same building which formerly housed the private American Heritage Academy. Some Cherokee County taxpayers think it will continue to be operated like a private school despite the name change, new management and public funding. The advantage to holdover parents is they no longer pay tuition because the program is fully funded by the government.
The legislature’s proposed new arrangement sounds like a winner to everybody except taxpayers and those who believe in local control of education.
[Scott Bradshaw, a resident of Peachtree City, is a real estate broker and residential real estate developer. He may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.]