One of the most important issues facing voters in Georgia on this November’s ballot is not the choice between various candidates. A far more long-lasting choice is a vote on the role of local control over our public schools.
On almost any subject regarding education there is great debate and disagreement about how best to prepare future generations to face the challenges of a changing world. There is one subject, however, that almost all people of all political persuasions have usually agreed on since the founding of our country: that the control over how our children are educated and how we pay for that education should reside within the local community, represented by an elected school board.
There is an amendment on the ballot in Georgia this fall that seeks to change that basic belief.
In what appears to be a reasonable change to the state Constitution, we will be voting yes or no on the following: “Shall the Constitution of Georgia be amended to allow state or local approval of public charter schools upon the request of local communities?”
First, the Constitution of Georgia already allows local communities, as represented by a local school board, to allow local public charter schools that are funded by both state and local tax dollars.
The idea for charter schools actually originated with Albert Shanker, the president of the American Federation of Teachers from 1974 to 1997. His idea was that a group of public school teachers would ask for permission to create a small school that would focus on the neediest students, those who had dropped out and those who were likely to drop out.
This idea was later expanded to include schools that would specialize in areas like math, science or fine arts. His idea was to open schools within the public school system that would address these important needs. In Griffin, we have had a charter school at Futral Road Elementary as well as other schools like A.Z. Kelsey Academy, Mainstay Academy and the Taylor Street Achievement Center, that carry on the original spirit of charter schools as a complement and component of a comprehensive public school system where there is a “place for all children.”
Parents in any community can petition a local school board for a public charter school. If approved by the school board, the new charter receives both state and local money to advance their vision for educating their children. The oversight of the tax money that goes to these charters, as it did to Futral Road Elementary, is still under the control of the school board that is accountable to the public.
The amendment will allow a new state board to not only approve a charter school not backed by a local board of education, but use state tax dollars to fund it at twice the amount of money that the state sends to local public schools. Where will this money come from?
I can think of three sources. First it can come from reductions in other parts of the state budget (unlikely). Or the money can come from increased taxes (really unlikely). Or, more probable, it will come from state spending on public education that has already been cut by $3 billion over the past three years with more cuts coming.
Putting aside whether charter schools are any more effective than public schools (most research is inconclusive on this point), this amendment will give a state commission the power to essentially set up a separate and parallel state school system funded by tax dollars that would otherwise be under the control of people at the local level. The idea of local control of education will be diminished. There is certainly no research that suggests this will enhance the education of our children.
We need to remember that public education is that great idea of American democracy. Public schools must accept every child who comes to its doors, regardless of race, language, income or disability. They do not get to pick their students, or recruit supportive parents, or remove students for not performing to standards.
Each day, our teachers stand in front of all faces of America. I recently read this scenario: Think of yourself as a doctor, lawyer or dentist who had 40 people in your office at the same time, all of whom had different needs, many did not want to be there and were causing trouble, you had no help, and had to treat all 40 with professional excellence for nine months. That’s a teacher’s job.
Rather than set up a separate public school system run by a state commission, we should continue to work at the local level to make sure our children receive the best education possible, as we already do in Griffin.
Professor of agricultural and applied economics
University of Georgia Griffin Campus