"Shall the Constitution of Georgia be amended to allow state or local approval of public charter schools upon the request of local communities?" That sounds like an innocuous question to be on the Nov. 6 ballot.
My first question was: Why is a constitutional amendment necessary?
Actually, I first wrote this column for last week and decided to postpone it. In the meantime it was covered extensively in both local papers, as well as others, so my thoughts are somewhat repetitive. But I hope they are more clarifying than redundant.
Other questions followed: Don't we already have charter schools and systems? Who approved them? Have some applications been denied? By whom and why? What is a charter school/system and how does it differ from any other school/system?
Let me say immediately that I do not plan to fully explain the answer to that last question - nor can I.
Basically, the difference is that a charter school has presented a plan that explains how that institution desired to function somewhat differently from what it is doing under existing policies delineated by the state for all public schools.
It might be establishing an alternative school such as Dawson County has in Hightower Academy, or varying class sizes, or offering a slightly different curriculum.
The applicant has established specific goals and methods of evaluating the achieving of those goals. It shows the recruiting of advisory councils consisting of local business and community leaders, parents and educators. It has presented that detailed plan to the local board of education and if approved there, the plan has gone to the State Department of Education for review and approval.
Either the local or state board can disapprove a proposal for specific reasons, but the plan can be changed and resubmitted. That continues Georgia's history of strong local control of community schools.
Incidentally, charter schools do not consistently outperform traditional public schools - sometimes it's just the opposite. They simply allow for more innovation and input.
I have read a long article by Dr. John D. Barge, state superintendent of schools, and have heard Dawson County Superintendent Keith Porter explain their belief that a state-appointed commission (under this amendment) could approve charter schools to serve local communities with no participation from local districts. They maintain that the present method is satisfactory.
The amendment ballot language is vague. It does not explain that a new state agency would be created - more bureaucracy and more money from state school funding, which has already been severely cut.
With this amendment, we are voting only on whether or not the legislature/governor should appoint a special commission, separate from the department of education, to do what that department has been and is currently doing.
As a matter of fact, such a commission was created by the legislature and functioned for two years until it was struck down by the Georgia Supreme Court in 2011. That is the reason for this proposed amendment: To allow the re-creation of that special commission.
Educators argue that the money to fund that commission and the schools it could approve outside local control would be better spent on improving the quality of existing schools, both traditional and charter, and on restoring some of the austerity cuts. It would have to come from somewhere.
Georgia's PT joins in that argument.
Based on some contracts issued by that now-dissolved commission and similar commissions in other states, a major position against the amendment is that taxpayer money could well be going to Educational Management Organizations, which are for-profit, and often out-of-state, companies that operate some charter schools. Educators can give specific examples.
Anyone who wants to learn more or to contribute to an organization working to prevent passage of the amendment can go to www.votesmartgeorgia.com.
The push for passage of the amendment is heavily financed, particularly by several out-of-state individuals and organizations. Why? Legislators sponsoring it are the same ones who, although mostly educated in traditional public schools, have loudly criticized "our failing public schools" and promoted the idea of vouchers.
Do they really want to destroy our open-to-all public schools?
One question we definitely must ask: So why have lobbyists encouraged legislators to press for this amendment?
Who are these lobbyists?
Helen Taylor's column appears periodically in the Dawson Community News.