Brad Smith: Charter schools should be supervised by local school boards

On Nov. 6, you will have the opportunity to vote on an amendment to the state Constitution about Charter Schools. In my capacity as a member of the Rockdale County Board of Education, I have had the chance to really examine the issue so I can make informed decisions as a voter. I would like to make very clear, however, that my opinions as expressed in this editorial should not be construed as the opinion of the Rockdale County Board of Education. These are my views solely as a citizen and voter. I believe that quality charter schools are a good thing and a valuable tool in educating our children. The Rockdale Career Academy is one example of a local charter school. However, I believe that charter schools should be under the auspices of a local school board rather than, as this amendment would allow, having them function as a state-run entity.

In 2008, the Georgia Legislature passed a law allowing the state to create charter schools in districts without any input from the local board or the citizens in that area. Because the responsibility for creating schools is supposed to reside with the local school systems, several county school systems sued the state to halt this activity. In 2011, the Georgia Supreme Court struck down the law. They determined the state was overstepping its power and the law was deemed unconstitutional.

This year a bill to amend the state Constitution to permit the state to create charter schools was submitted to the Legislature. The question you will see on the ballot in November will be, "Shall the Constitution of Georgia be amended to allow state or local approval of public charter schools upon the request of local communities?" On the surface this sounds like a good thing, but once you scratch the surface things change. This amendment will add an additional layer of state government to education. Our locally elected school boards have already been granted the authority to decide if a charter school is created in their district. The local school board answers to students, parents and taxpayers. That's called "accountability." It's also called "good sense." Those who live and pay taxes in a community know what kinds of schools their children need. If the charter school amendment is passed, more bureaucrats in Atlanta will make decisions for the local system.

Many proponents of the amendment say Georgia parents should have school choice. Georgia parents already have school choice. There are more than 200 charter schools in Georgia, and there are plans in the works to create many more. School systems usually approve a charter school application because the school has a consistent record of, or has demonstrated a capacity for, strong academic results, well-trained and high-functioning governing boards, financial sustainability, and legal and regulatory compliance. A system of checks and balances is already in place to ensure the needs of all students are met. In fact, if a local school board chooses to deny a charter school petition, the group proposing the charter school can appeal the ruling to the state Department of Education. Since 2001, when the first state charter schools were established, the Department of Education has reviewed at least 52 state charter school applications and 19 of these 52 state chartered special school applications were approved by the state BOE -- and 15 are still operating today.

The proposed constitutional amendment would circumvent this system of checks and balances. It would allow a small group of unelected and unaccountable political appointees and insiders to decide what charters are created. Parents and communities would have no say. This amendment would re-create The Charter School Commission that would answer to no one but the governor. Giving an unelected group of bureaucrats the power to create for-profit charter schools at will is simply bad public policy. It's not about meeting the needs of children. It's about handing unprecedented power to Atlanta insiders to dole out money to political allies. This amendment would create another layer of government that will cost millions of your tax dollars to run, not to mention the millions of dollars that will be going to the charter schools.

Brad Smith is a member of the Rockdale County Board of Education.