Voters could decide on charter school law

ATLANTA -- The state House and a state Senate committee approved a constitutional amendment last week that would allow the state to create charter schools even when local school boards don't approve of them.

The measure passed in the House 123-48 Wednesday, barely garnering the required two-thirds majority, and the Senate's Education and Youth Committee voted 7-5 for the measure Thursday.

House Speaker Pro Tem Jan Jones, the bill's lead sponsor, said the constitutional amendment would clarify state law after a May ruling from the state Supreme Court outlawed the Georgia Charter Schools Commission. The court ruled the commission was illegally creating charter schools over the objection of districts.

A House vote on the bill earlier this month fell 10 votes shy of the required two-thirds majority to approve it. Jones and other supporters spent the last two weeks tweaking the bill and working to win enough support to get it passed.

Brad Smith, a member of the Rockdale County school board, said some language has been tweaked to better benefit local funding, but there's no guarantee that won't change later.

"The state is going to do what it wants to do," he said.

Members of the Newton and Rockdale County boards of education have expressed their opposition to the measure, mainly because it takes away control from local school boards and puts it in the hands of state officials.

"There is nothing good about an Atlanta-based commission having any say in local decisions," said Jeff Meadors, Newton County school board vice chair.

"The state wants to bypass by local boards of education altogether," Smith said, adding that it might be a better plan for local systems if the state wanted to create an appeal system if a local board denied a charter program.

Still, Meadors said the voters should have a right to decide such things.

"While I do not support (House Resolution) 1162, it is my personal belief that our public systems statewide are going to have to step up the game and make good decisions about improving student achievement in order to make charter amendment supporters fully believe we can manage and run high quality schools," Meadors said. "I oppose this bill, but having read a lot on both sides and having talked with many legislators, I do have an understanding of both sides of the argument."

Although Rockdale County Public Schools has a charter program through the Rockdale Career Academy and the Newton County School System through Challenge Charter Academy, those are locally supported and operated, unlike ones the state law would allow.

Smith said, "the language on the ballot is the most devious part because on the surface it looks great," so uninformed voters need to do more research and talk to their legislators before making a decision if the measure makes it to the November ballot.

"We must reinforce our support of high quality teachers, rid our ranks of low performers at every level, use solid research outcomes to inform our work and ensure the safety of our schools through discipline that is firm, fair, and consistent. Only then will the overwhelming majority of the public fully believe that local boards and leaders can manage schools," Meadors said. "These are hard but necessary tasks, and if we don't get a handle on it, the charter commission and voucher advocates will be hard to oppose. If we make decisions at the local level that generate poor perceptions to the public, then we risk public trust and local control."

The Georgia Charter Schools Commission was created in 2008 by frustrated lawmakers who said local school boards were turning down charter school applications because they didn't like the competition. The commission began approving and funding charter schools over the objection of the local boards, sparking the lawsuit that eventually ended in the Supreme Court ruling.

If the constitutional amendment passes the full Senate during this legislative session, it would go on the ballot in November for voters to decide.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.