Effingham County Schools Superintendent Randy Shearouse had no doubt he would vote against Amendment 1 in the Nov. 6 general election. However, after he cast his ballot that day, he talked with a voter who wasn’t nearly as sure about the charter school amendment.
Shearouse recalled, "She told me, ‘I really didn’t know how to vote. Even though I went in thinking I was going to vote no, when I read the amendment, it became confusing.’
"And that was someone who had planned to vote no before they even went into the voting booth, so it was certainly a confusing ballot question."
Georgia voters passed the amendment with nearly 59 percent of the vote. The vote was closer in Effingham County, with almost 54 percent approval.
Shearouse attributed the amendment’s passage largely to the wording used on the ballot: "Shall the Constitution of Georgia be amended to allow state or local approval of public charter schools upon the request of local communities?"
"So, in that sense," Shearouse said, "I’m not surprised that is passed — because who doesn’t want to make education better for children in the state of Georgia?"
For Effingham County Board of Education Chairman Lamar Allen, the wording of the question went beyond being confusing. He considered it unethical.
"I’m very disappointed, but I’m not surprised, for the simple reason, the way it was worded," Allen said. "I’ve had people tell me that, even though they were going to vote no, when they went in and read it, they still got confused. So it was worded that way on purpose."
Shearouse and Allen both emphasized they are not opposed to charter schools. In fact, the county has a charter school, the Effingham College and Career Academy.
Allen said he "would have no problem supporting" a good plan for another charter school in Effingham County. However, he is concerned that the constitutional amendment takes control away from local school boards and opens the door for out-of-state, for-profit management companies to benefit from the creation of state-maintained charter schools.
"I just don’t like somebody coming here and being able to put a school in my county where I’m elected to see about education, and I have no say-so over it," Allen said.
The amendment establishes a state committee of political appointees to decide whether to approve charter schools that are turned down by local school boards. That is a change from the current process in which charter school applications go before the local school board and, if turned down, can be appealed to the state board of education.
The Effingham County Board of Education passed a resolution in September opposing the charter school amendment. Shearouse and the board contend that the system already in place works just fine.
"I saw one of the (pro-amendment) advertisements where a little girl was talking about how it was important for her to be in charter school," Shearouse said, "and I’m thinking, ‘She’s already in a charter school, so why does something need to be changed?’ Someone already approved that charter school for her to attend."
Effingham school officials have not heard estimates on the price tag for the state to maintain charter schools. However, Shearouse and Allen are convinced that local districts will be hurt financially.
They added that the timing could not be worse, since the state is already cutting millions of dollars for local districts. This year alone, Effingham County’s state education funding has been pared by $8 million in austerity reductions and $4 million in equalization cutbacks.
"The pie is only so large, and you’re taking pieces and edges of the pie away," Shearouse said. "So, ultimately, whether there’s a charter school in Effingham County or not, it’s still going to take away money because there’s only so much money to go around."
Added Allen: "The money is going to come out of the education system; it’s not going to come from wherever the (charter) schools go. And they still haven’t decided exactly how they’re going to do it."
Several state legislators, including Sen. Buddy Carter of Pooler, supported the amendment. Carter refuted the notion that the measure would take control and funding from local school districts.
"In reality, nothing could be further from the truth," he wrote in a recent editorial. "Not a single dollar will be taken out of the traditional public school system. In fact, a closer look reveals that a state charter school actually frees up more local money for other students since state charter schools don’t require local funding."
However, Allen remains unconvinced. He called the charter school amendment "just another slap toward public education."
Allen believes several school districts will be punished by the actions of a few. He said state legislators have told him Amendment 1 was put on the ballot largely because of the refusal of some school districts to consider proposals from charter school supporters.
"There can be one school system that’s done that, but they’re going to penalize everybody," Allen said. "I don’t understand why you don’t take care of (the bad systems) and leave everybody else alone, but that’s just not the way the system works."
That opinion aside, Allen said the outcome at the polls leaves the school district little choice about the charter school amendment.
"I hate it, but it’s there," he said. "So, we live with what we have, and we go on."