Georgia charter school decision could set national precedent

The Georgia Legislature is hotly debating a bill that would allow the state to cover the costs of charter schools even if local school boards reject them, setting up a case that could set national precedent on educational reform.

The legislation to amend the state constitution would allow the Peach State to create its own parallel K-12 system to local boards, drawing on the same limited pool of Georgia's taxpayer funds -- a decision that the Georgia Supreme Court said was illegal just one year ago.

"In the education reform battle often times things boil down to a turf battle, and that's what we have here. We have some local school systems that are worried that by virtue of having state charter schools that some of their turf is getting interfered. But it's about the children and the choice," said state Rep. Ed Lindsey, R-Atlanta. "It's a control issue, and it always has been."

The amendment would codify the authority of the Georgia Charter Schools Commission, an organization created by the state in 2008 after complaints that school boards were turning down charter school applicants, preventing competition. But the commission began approving and funding charter schools even at the objection of the local boards, illegal under current law. That's when the Georgia Supreme Court stepped in.

"The Georgia Constitution says local boards control where local dollars go, so if a charter school only gets state approval and not local approval, no way can they receive local funds. They can only receive state funds," said Tim Callahan, spokesman for the Professional Association of Georgia Educators or PAGE, which opposes the funding. "The people who are putting this constitutional amendment on the ballot are trying to do that in our Senate right now -- are really trying to do a run-around the Supreme Court ruling."

Critics say the move to create a state board will damage the public education system because the amendment would allow the state to siphon money from cash-strapped districts at a time when they're facing almost $1 billion in cuts.

"Our state is very strapped in terms of funding," Callahan said. "We have cut by over $2 billion the education budget over the past eight years or so, and we have a funding formula that dates back to 1985 (and) has not been updated for inflation."

Education spending accounts for almost half of the state's yearly budget but GOP leaders promise no money will be taken from school districts.

"This bill in no way touches any kind of local funding," Lindsey said. "In fact we put in to the Constitution a specific provision that guarantees there will be no local money used for these state charter schools. But keep in mind also that these schools that are in the more rural areas. It's a lot of these kids that need charter schools the most and it's the children in those areas we're most concerned about."

Lindsey said charter schools are a beneficial addition to the education world -- they build, not break down, community education.

"Charter schools are part of an overall tool in the tool box for education reform," Lindsey said. "It, along with the myriad of other programs, is extremely important in terms of giving parents and students a greater choice in what is the best education for a particular child and it encourages education achievement and success along the way. It creates innovation."

But Callahan said Georgia charter schools don't outperform public schools.

"Parents are hungry for the latest thing -- whatever may be the best for their children," he said. "And that's understandable, but we all need to step back a little bit and take a deep breath. The best research we've had on charter schools and its pretty comprehensive says that only 17 percent of charter schools actually do better than the public schools they replace."

The amendment is supported by Republican Gov. Nathan Deal, who has gotten involved in the push to get the legislation passed. Lindsey said he is confident the bill will pass the Senate with strong bipartisan support as it did in the Georgia House.

"This is somewhere we can all find common ground," Lindsey said.

If it passes the Senate, the constitutional amendment would go on the ballot in November for voters to decide.