‘Protect local school money — don’t let it be taken away by the state.’
For the last couple years, the focus has been on transportation as the public policy issue likely to dominate the 2012 political season.
But the Georgia Supreme Court may have changed that with its recent decision that declared the state’s involvement in the establishment of public charter schools was unconstitutional.
Specifically, the court said the state had no business depriving local school systems of nearly $8 million in funding in order to establish alternative schools in their midst.
The only way to overturn the 4-3 decision is through a constitutional amendment that would be presented statewide to voters in November 2012. All the ingredients for a knockdown, drag-out fight are there:
– School choice is a foundational tenet of current Republican philosophy. Depending on the GOP nominee for president, turning out core voters could be a concern. The charter school issue might provide a tempting, second reason to flock to the polls.
– The private foundations that have underwritten the charter school movement in Georgia are also likely to finance a substantial campaign to restore the legal status of 16 charter schools and the 15,000 students they serve.
– Georgia’s 180 public school systems and hundreds of local PTA chapters are just as likely to fight any effort they think might siphon off funding for the other 1.6 million students in Georgia public schools.
– Three state Supreme Court members will be up for re-election at the same time. Chief Justice Carol Hunstein and Justice Hugh Thompson were among the four who declared the Georgia Charter School Commission constitutionally invalid. So there will be an opportunity to put real-life faces to an otherwise dry and complicated issue. (Note to oddsmakers: Hunstein decimated her well-funded opponent in 2006.)
But the charter school matter is far from a slam-dunk. To be placed on a general election ballot, a constitutional amendment requires two-thirds passages by both chambers of the General Assembly.
The effort will be spearheaded in the House by Speaker pro tem Jan Jones, R-Milton, who noted that the measure to establish the Georgia Charter School Commission in 2008 passed her chamber with 120 of 180 votes.
But Fran Millar, R-Dunwoody, the chairman of the Senate education committee, thinks much arm-twisting will be required. “Once you get out of the metro [Atlanta] area, your two largest employers are your school systems and your hospitals. I think there’s going to be a lot of pressure,” Millar said.
Millar and Jones concede that the topic of vouchers will have to be avoided at all costs.
The Senate, thrown into disarray by a GOP leadership squabble, is where the measure could most easily be blocked. “I strongly believe in local school systems having control of the schools they pay for,” said Senate Democratic Leader Steve Henson of Tucker.
Yet, according to some, getting a constitutional amendment out of the Legislature would be the easy part.
B.J. Van Gundy, a member of the now-mothballed Georgia Charter Schools Commission and a longtime Republican activist, is already scouting for money to use in next year’s campaign.
Much of the cash would have to go toward explaining exactly what a Georgia charter school is — a public school that isn’t bound by the usual rules or regulations. In return, it is held responsible for producing higher results. Set forth in a charter.
“It is always a challenge, even with intelligent people who understand things like school choice — they don’t understand charter schools,” Van Gundy said. Worse, because presidential elections attract the highest number of voters — nearly 4 million in 2008 — that message would have to reach a very large statewide audience.
That’s expensive. And meanwhile, Van Gundy said, the argument from the other side is simpler. And cheap. “The local school districts can all put out signs that say ‘Protect local school money — don’t let it be taken away by the state,’” he said.
Perhaps with that dynamic in mind, some Republicans have begun to recast the implications of the state Supreme Court’s decision — among them Jones, the No. 2 ranking member of the House.
“To me there is a much broader issue,” she said, pointing to the court’s declaration that local school systems have “exclusive” control over education.
“The Supreme Court reinterpreted the partnership between the state and school boards in educating Georgia students. Essentially, the court eliminated the state’s ability to protect its brand,” Jones said.
Can the state remove dysfunctional school board members now? Set classroom sizes? Punish systems riddled with cheating administrators?
“Can parents, can taxpayers, hold the state accountable for education paid for with tax dollars? I believe the state Supreme Court has said no,” she said.
The speaker pro tem said she didn’t know what a constitutional response to the Supreme Court decision might look like, but she’s hoping for a non-controversial, bipartisan approach like that used to address reductions in the HOPE scholarship.
“There are many types of schools that, over time, will not fit neatly into attendance zones,” Jones said. To think otherwise, she added, is “akin to tethering Georgians to landline telephones.”