If the Georgia Constitution is amended, reinstating the General Assembly’s authority to approve charter schools along with local school boards, what will it mean for students, parents and teachers in Douglas County?
That is a question being asked by thousands ahead of a statewide vote on the issue Nov. 6, and one with a different answer depending on how it is analyzed and who is speaking.
One side of the debate consists of Republican state lawmakers, Gov. Nathan Deal and the Georgia Charter Schools Association, who say it will increase performance and provide an alternative to traditional public schools. Locally, this includes longtime state representative Bill Hembree and Brighten Academy Director Lisa McDonald.
The other side is made up of local school boards throughout Georgia and state schools superintendent Dr. John Barge, who broke rank with other Republican state leaders in stating his opposition. They hold that the amendment will further reduce funding for public schools and concentrate power at the highest levels of state government. Douglas County’s contingent on this side includes Democratic Representative Roger Bruce, the five-member board of education and schools superintendent Dr. Gordon Pritz.
A charter school operates using public funds, but operates independently of its local school system. Of Georgia’s 121 charters, Douglas County has two. Brighten Academy opened in 2006 and serves students in grades K-8. The College and Career Institute (CCI) opened in 2009 and provides specialized job training for students enrolled at the county’s five high schools.
In Georgia, the issue goes back to at least 1998, when the state was first granted the legal authority to approve charters. In 2008, the general assembly created the Georgia Charter Schools Commission as a formal board to approve charter schools rejected by local boards. But the Georgia Supreme Court ruled in May 2011 that the commission did not have the authority to approve charter schools. The amendment aims to override that ruling.
Charter schools are governed by a different set of rules than traditional schools. One major difference is that they can be shut down if they do not meet their academic goals. Their independence from the local system stems all the way to a separate accreditation process. They are given five-year year terms to operate, and must be renewed by the board that approved them to remain in operation.
The schools cannot have admissions standards or charge tuition, and they cannot have any affiliation with a religion. In spite of this, some critics have said they amount to publicly funded private schools.
“The amendment’s supporters say it gives people more choices,” said Bruce, who voted against the bill in the House. “But it deprives some students in favor of others.”
Local school boards have seen major budget cuts from the state’s portion of public school funding since 2003, including $67 million in Douglas County. Coupled with the recession, these have meant furlough days and increased class sizes in the state’s schools. Of Georgia’s 180 school systems, 121 are operating less than 180 days per year, with some open as few as 144 days. These cuts were key in Barge’s opposition to the charter school amendment.
Local BOE Chair Janet Kelley fears a worsening budget crunch if the state is given greater authority.
“There is a limited amount of money,” Kelley said. “If the legislators have magically found a pot of money that allows new funding for charter schools, then I hope they have the wisdom to restore $67 million in austerity cuts that Douglas County has endured since 2003. Indeed, then it seems the general assembly should be obliged to fully fund the quality basic education formula, which has yet to be fully funded since its creation in 1985.”
But proponents hold that more charter schools can actually save money. This is because charters spend less money per pupil than traditional schools. Proponents cite high dropout rates and refer to public schools as “zip code schools.” They propose moving low performing students to charter schools in order to increase performance.
Douglas County’s first charter school, Brighten Academy, opened in 2006. Originally housed at the First Baptist Church of Douglasville, they are now in a complex off of Chapel Hill Road and are looking to move into a larger facility. There has been a long waiting list at the school for several years.
High standardized test scores are the rule at Brighten, which has been named a finalist for two years in a row in the Georgia Charter School of the Year competition. Brighten spends about $6,000 per pupil compared to $7,200 per pupil in the Douglas County School System, and its teachers make between $3,000 and $4,000 less than teachers in other schools.
Brighten draws students from all over the county, but doesn’t offer bus service and requires 20 hours a year of parent involvement for each child. There is also a lower percentage of students receiving free and reduced lunch at Brighten than in the wider school system.
“Brighten recognizes they are not the school for all students and that they don’t reflect the demographics of the rest of the school system,” said Kelley. “The school system continues to support Brighten by providing breakfast and lunch to their students, training for teachers, special education services and assistance with enrollment procedures, among others.”
DCSS officials point out that Brighten is a locally approved school that was re-approved last year by the BOE and that Brighten projects were part of the latest E-SPLOST list. Brighten’s leaders, such as McDonald, have also said the school system was helpful in getting Brighten started and agreed there is a healthy working relationship between the two. But there have been conflicts.
Brighten has twice tried to move into a school being vacated by a DCSS school. It first tried to move into the old Bill Arp Elementary School when it left for a new building, and then tried the same more recently with Factory Shoals Elementary School. Both times the buildings became annexes for central office instead.
McDonald said Brighten may have been too late in an attempt to have the Factory Shoals item tabled by the BOE, but added that the school only learned about the move through reading it in the newspaper.
There have been clashes between the BOE and Brighten on financing as well. The two are still in talks after a revision of funding calculations saw Brighten’s budget increased by about $300,000 last year.
“We appreciate that the funding calculation was amended last year, and we are working with the school system to resolve any funding issues from prior years,” said McDonald. “We continue to work with the DCSS to adjust any funding based on new state guidance, and we’re confident this issue will be resolved in a manner that will benefit our students and our community.”
Brighten’s current building has no gym or band room, and it can’t offer sports teams for its middle schoolers. McDonald said the recent funding increase puts a new building into play, and leaders are looking at New Life Christian Church on Prestley Mill Road. The move should cost a total of $10-12 million, which McDonald said is much less than the cost of building a traditional public school.
The charter school amendment has split political parties along state and local lines. Douglas County’s board of education, consisting of four Republicans and one Democrat, has come out universally against the amendment. Local Republicans in the legislature support the amendment, but Democrats are mostly against it.
At the cross-hairs earlier this year was Michael Miller, a school board member who was running for state office. He sided with the state.
“There is an inherent conflict of interest for districts to make recommendations for charter schools, which dilutes their power and funding,” he said during his campaign for Georgia House District 66.
Hembree, who has served as chairman of the House Higher Education Committee, made the point more bluntly. Asked why local school boards opposed the amendment, he responded, “power and money.”
Another issue in the amendment is the role of private management companies. Opponents say legislators are motivated by out-of-state, for-profit management companies that would run state-approved charter schools. Proponents point to companies already used by public schools, such as Ombudsman, which has a contract with DCSS.
Even the wording of the ballot question has caused controversy. It reads, “Shall the Constitution of Georgia be amended to allow state or local approval of public charter schools upon the request of local communities?” Opponents of the amendment, including Pritz, have called it a misleading question.
What is somewhat unclear is what will happen in the case of either passage or rejection of the amendment. Those against the amendment say the state still can and does approve charter schools now, and that the bill would serve only to formally recreate the Georgia Charter School Commission, adding to government bureaucracy. Some supporters have said efforts will be made to end the state’s approval authority if the amendment fails.
Kelley feels that passage will mean two things.
“The practical application is less funding for traditional public schools,” she said. “Also, the average citizen is taken out of the process. This will give the state more power.”
Proponents, like former Brighten board member and Georgia Charter Schools Association Vice President Kelly Cadman, disagree.
“Proponents of the amendment believe that the most local control available is the voice of a parent and that parents should have the right to choose the most appropriate setting for their child,” said Cadman. “Whether it is a traditional public school, charter, private, or home school.”