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State Rep. Dickerson hosts discussion on charter amendment

CONYERS -- A group of panelists spoke to a group of residents Monday evening about the charter school amendment that will be on the Nov. 6 general election ballot.

State Reps. Pam Dickerson, D-Conyers, and Dar'shun Kendrick, D-Lithonia, and Doreen Williams, a former candidate for House of Representatives District 92 and a longtime educator, hosted the event at the Nancy Guinn Memorial Library.

"We would like for everyone to be aware of what's going on with this amendment so they know when they go to the polls," Dickerson said.

Panelists were asked several pre-written questions and some others from the audience. Panelists were Richard Autry, superintendent of Rockdale County Public Schools; Wales Barksdale, chair of the Rockdale County Board of Education; Darlene Hotchkiss, member of the BOE; Giulio Gianturco, chair of the Center for an Educated Georgia advisory council; Marcus Williams, a teacher at Hapeville Charter Career Academy in College Park; and Verdallia Turner, president of the Georgia Federation of Teachers.

During the meeting, some of the opponents of the amendment said passage of the charter amendment will hurt funding and take away local control.

Autry added that RCPS has two charter schools, the Rockdale Career Academy and the Rockdale Magnet School for Science and Technology, that were approved by the school board and are managed locally, not by a governmental agency in Atlanta not connected with the local system.

"We want to have alternatives and options for our students," Autry said.

Turner and Autry said that those who want to create a charter school already have an avenue -- they can petition the local school board, and if it is denied for a reason like being financially unstable, being redundant in the school system or having a non-approved curriculum, the group can appeal to the state Department of Education.

Because of this, Autry said the amendment would be redundant and could take away education funds from local school systems, which already have been cut by billions over the years.

"This is a big money-maker," Turner said. "It sounds wonderful, but this is the beginning of privatizing schools in Georgia and re-segregating by class and color. ... This state has shorted our children already. ... We should be working on what we know."

Barksdale and Autry said that most of the supporters of the bill are from out of state, including the Walton family that owns Walmart, a private company K12 Inc. and Charter Schools USA, among others.

"You have to look at the motives," Autry said.

Barksdale said that a private group like Charter Schools USA would want to manage school funding at a higher percentage than public schools cost.

"It's about making money for people," he said. "I think it will be detrimental to all education in the state of Georgia."

He added that when the state constitution was created public education was placed in the hands of the counties and cities, and he doesn't want that to be taken away from the original intent.

Autry said that the fine print of the bill shows that the commission created through it can review and recommend any needed legislative adjustments, so it could start off one way and go through changes later.

Proponents said the amendment will give options to parents and students who feel stuck in their current schools without other options, particularly in problem systems like Atlanta and Clayton County.

"Every county is not as astute as Rockdale County," Williams said. "Some of the students do get left out and are not accounted for. I believe charter schools are a great alternative. ... We all have a right to choose."

But he agreed that some charter schools are not for everyone.

"Public schools are for everyone, and we welcome everyone through our doors," Autry countered.

Gianturco noted that the amendment is a statewide one.

"This is an issue much bigger than Rockdale County," Gianturco said, adding that Georgia isn't ranked high in education and incoming businesses look at that. "We have to look at other ways of doing business and other ways of educating."

Hotchkiss countered that if businesses want to get involved, then they should help public education.

"All of the money being put into this, we can use. If the state would support schools and help them with as much energy, then we would have improved student achievement," she said. "Public education is not a business; it's a calling."

Although some of the panelists reported that charter schools perform as well as or worse than public schools, Williams said his school is performing at a rate 10 percent higher than public schools in south Fulton County, and Gianturco said many charter schools concentrated in urban counties perform better.

"At least there's experimentation going on," Gianturco said. "Long term, there will be bumps in the road. But give it some time, and it's going to bring things up across the state."

Hotchkiss said that the state already has ways to step in and intervene with problem schools.

"They have resources," she said. "This is not the way. We don't need this. We have components in place now. The state has the right to step in now."

In closing, Autry said that healthy discussion brings out great ideas and that it might be OK to agree to disagree as long as everyone is thinking about what is best for students.

"This is probably one of the biggest decisions Georgia will ever make," Barksdale added. "We have to do better statewide."