Politics
5:10 pm
Fri November 2, 2012

Georgia Charter School Amendment FAQ

A map showing the location of Georgia's charter schools; part of a presentation by Louis Erste of the Charter Schools Division, Georgia Department of Education, May 8, 2012.
Credit Georgia Dept. of Education

Here are some frequently asked questions about the controversy over the proposed charter school amendment that will be on Tuesday's ballot.  This information comes from WABE reporting and from specific sources cited below.

Q.  What is a charter school?

A.  The Georgia Department of Education's web site gives the following definition of a charter school: "A charter school is a public school of choice that operates under the terms of a charter, or contract, with an authorizer, such as the state and local boards of education. Charter schools receive flexibility from certain state and local rules in exchange for a higher degree of accountability for raising student achievement. Charter schools are held accountable by their authorizer(s) for upholding the terms of their charter."  For more background on charter schools generally and in Georgia, click here.

Q.  How many charter schools are there in Georgia?

A.  The Charter School Division of the Georgia DOE said that during the 2010-11 school year, Georgia has 263 charter schools.  [Source: 2010-11 Annual Report from the Charter School Division of the Georgia Department of Education]

Q.  How many Georgia K-12 students currently attend public charter schools?

A.  During the 2010-2011 school year, there were 98,263 students attending charter schools in Georgia.  Charter school students account for 5.9% of all students in the Georgia public school system.  [Source: 2010-11 Annual Report from the Charter School Division of the Georgia Department of Education]

Q.  How are charter schools approved?

A.  Here's the general process: parents wanting to set up a charter school would write a proposal and submit it to their local school board.  If approved by the school board and the state Dept. of Education, the charter school would be created and would be eligible for public education funding that included local property tax money.  If an application was turned down, the DOE could independently approve the school as a state-chartered school.  A state-chartered school would be entitled to state money but not to local property tax money.  [summarized from Frequently Asked Questions for New Petitioners from the Charter School Division, GA Department of Education]

Q.  What led to the referendum?

A.  In 2008 the Legislature authorized the Georgia Charter Schools Commission as another route to approving charter school applications that were turned down by local school boards.  The problem was that these new state-chartered special schools were eligible for state funds, money which many cash-strapped school boards feared might come from their own funding.  Several school boards sued, and the Georgia Supreme Court overturned the law in May, 2011, saying it violated the constitutional "principle of exclusive local control" of public schools.  Charter school proponents worried that this ruling would eventually be applied to the state DOE itself, ending the state chartering process and leaving them with no alternative for approval other than the local school board.  In the worst case, the decision might even be used to retroactively invalidate the status of any charter schools approved by the earlier commission.  You can click here to download a copy of the Georgia Supreme Court decision, Gwinnett County School District v. Cox.

Q.  What does the amendment do?

A.  The amendment creates an exception to the "local control" rule in the Georgia Constitution and formally reestablishes the Georgia Charter Schools Commission.  A companion piece of legislation that would go into effect if the amendment passes, HB 797, would create a seven-member commission composed of three members recommended by the Governor and two each by the President of the Senate and the Speaker of the House.  Schools that are approved by the new commission are to receive money from the state in a way that is not supposed to penalize the local school district.  Click here to see the text and legislative history of HB 797.

Q.  What are the central questions at issue?

A.  First of all, it should be noted that this is not about charter schools per se.  All of the amendment's supporters and opponents say they support charter schools.  This is about certain aspects of how charter schools get authorized, and by whom. 

Control of who gets to authorize schools is certainly one of the central questions.  Charter school proponents have long argued that a recalcitrant local school board can reject a charter school application out of hand for all sorts of reasons.  For example, they may refuse to give an application a fair hearing because they see it as an indictment of their own management of the school district.  Supporters of the amendment want to have an alternative approval process for those times when a school board refuses to approve a proposal.  Opponents see this as a weakening of local control of schools.

Another central question has to do with money.  Should a charter school that has not been authorized by a local school board be able to qualify for state money?  Amendment proponents say that providing state funding to the charter school won't cause the local school system to lose money, but opponents point out that the amount of money available for education is limited, so additional schools of any kind will reduce the money available for everyone else.

A third question has to do with the creation of this new agency itself.  Some people argue that this would be duplicating work already being done by the Department of Education and would just create another layer of bureaucracy. 

Q.  How does the question appear on the ballot?

A.  The wording on the ballot says: "Shall the Constitution of Georgia be amended to allow state or local approval of public charter schools upon the request of local communities?" [Source: wording copied from the Fulton County sample ballot for the Nov. 6, 2012, election]

Q.  Who is supporting the amendment?

A.  Gov. Nathan Deal, the Georgia Chamber of Commerce, the Georgia Charter Schools Association, the Georgia Public Policy Foundation, and several others groups, some of which are located out-of-state.

Q.  Who is opposing the amendment?

A.  The Atlanta Tea Party, Concerned Black Clergy of Atlanta, the Georgia Legislative Black Caucus, the Georgia School Boards Association, the Professional Association of Georgia Educators, and the Georgia Educators Association, among others.

Q.  Does Georgia state school superintendent John Barge support the amendment?  

A.  No, he does not support it for several reasons.  He has issued a lengthy explanation of his position.

Q.  If the amendment loses, what does that do to existing charter schools?

A.  If the amendment fails, the current charter school approval process would continue as it does now.  However, it would also mean that the Supreme Court decision about local control would continue to stand.  In that case, it is possible that lawsuits could be filed challenging the state's approval process for charter schools and questioning the legality of the charter schools approved by the original Georgia Charter Schools Commission.