Proposed Georgia Constitutional Amendment on Charters Highlights Debate Over Funding

Last Updated: August 28, 2012

This article appeared in the August 2012 Rural Policy Matters.

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Pitched legislative debate over charter schools in the Peach State has resulted in a constitutional ballot question being placed on this November’s ballot, and voters are already hearing strong rhetoric from both supporters and those who oppose the measure.

The amendment question on the ballot will read “Shall the Constitution of Georgia be amended to allow state or local approval of public charter schools upon the request of local communities,” but many claim that wording is misleading since both the state and local districts can already approve charter schools.

State Education Superintendent John Barge broke party lines when he announced his opposition to the amendment earlier this month, saying in a prepared statement:

“I cannot support the creation of a new and costly state bureaucracy that takes away local control of schools and unnecessarily duplicates the good work already being done by local districts, the Georgia Department of Education, and the state Board of Education. What's more, this constitutional amendment would direct taxpayer dollars into the pockets of out-of-state, for-profit charter school companies whose schools perform no better than traditional public schools and locally approved charter schools (and worse, in some cases).”

Barge went on to say that that “until all public school students are in school for 180 days, until essential services such as student transportation and student support can return to effective levels, and until teachers regain jobs with full pay for a full school year, we should not direct one more dollar away from Georgia’s local school districts — much less an additional $430 million in state funds, the cost of adding seven new state charter schools per year over the next five years.”

In response, Gov. Nathan Deal released a statement that said Barge "no longer believes parents should have public school options for their children." Policy watchers have noted that several for-profit charter management organizations have made significant donations to a number of lawmakers who support the amendment.

Cuts to Georgia’s public schools have totaled over $4 billion in the last four years, and some districts have shortened the school year by as much as 20 days. Over 4,000 teaching positions have been lost in the state.

The impetus for the proposed amendment began in May 2011 when Georgia’s Supreme Court effectively shuttered the State Charter School Commission, which was an independent chartering authority in the state. The court held that the state constitution did not permit entities other than state and local boards of education to establish and run public schools.

The real issue at hand in the debate over the Commission, however, was funding. As in most states, Georgia school districts can approve charter schools and, when they do, charters receive local as well as state and federal funding. If a district does not approve a charter, the charter can appeal to Georgia's State Board of Education, which can also approve charters; state charters receive state and federal, but not local, dollars.

Georgia's Charter School Commission was formed in 2008 when charter supporters in the state claimed that too many charters were being denied by districts and that charters could not operate with only state funds. The Commission began approving schools and directing districts to allocate local dollars to charter school students. Seven school systems sued to have the state law that created the Charter Schools Commission declared unconstitutional. The amendment would have the effect of restarting the Commission.

Current state-approved charter schools received a boost during this year’s legislative session when lawmakers almost doubled the amount of state money they will receive per-pupil, a move they characterized as ‘bringing parity’ to charter schools. That supplemental money will go to state-approved schools no matter what voters decide this fall.

According to analysis by the Georgia Department of Education, some charter schools could get as much as two and a half times the amount of state funding that traditional public schools receive. Currently, per-capita funding for students in virtual schools is nearly twice as much as public school funding, according to an analysis by Georgia State Superintendents Association.

Current polling data shows the amendment will likely pass.

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Read more from the August 2012 Rural Policy Matters.