Between now and Nov. 6, you will hear a lot about the charter school constitutional amendment that’s on the general election ballot.
This amendment would authorize the Legislature and the governor to establish a state committee with the power to approve applications for charter schools that have been turned down by local school boards.
Here is some information to keep in mind during the weeks ahead.
You will be told that the amendment is necessary so that parents have more “choices” for their children. You will also be told that local school boards and the “education establishment” won’t approve new charter schools.
In fact, the number of charter schools in Georgia has steadily increased for more than a decade. There were more than 160 charter schools during the 2010-11 academic year, a number that grew to 217 in 2011-12 and to 315 in the current school year, according to the state Department of Education.
Most of the charter schools were approved by their local school board. In some cases where the school board would not approve a charter, the case was appealed to the state Board of Education, which has approved 19 charter schools originally turned down at the local level.
The state Board of Education is controlled by the governor, who appoints each of its members. Every current member of the state board was appointed by a Republican governor, either Sonny Perdue or Nathan Deal. If Deal wants the state board to approve more charter schools, all he has to do is appoint members who will vote that way.
There are more than 300 charter schools in Georgia and more than 500 private schools as well. If parents don’t want to send their children to a traditional public school or a charter school or a private school, they can choose to educate them at home. There are plenty of choices available under the current system.
You will hear it said that we need more charter schools because they do a better job of improving student performance.
In fact, study after study has shown that charter schools don’t do any better than traditional public schools when it comes to student performance, and in many cases they don’t do as well.
One of the measurements used by the state Department of Education is how many schools are making “adequate yearly progress” (also known as AYP) in meeting the standards set by George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act.
For the 2010-11 academic year, 70 percent of charter schools made “adequate yearly progress” while 73 percent of traditional public schools made AYP. For the charter schools that were operated by for-profit corporations, only 55 percent made AYP.
Here is some more information on our public education system: since 2003, the Legislature and the governor have cut the state’s formula funding to local school systems by a combined total of $6.6 billion. Those cutbacks were partly offset by $913 million in federal stimulus funds, leaving the final total of “austerity cuts” at $5.7 billion over a nine-year period.
That reduction in state funding forced many local school boards to increase their property tax rates and lay off teachers so that they could make up for the lost money.
Since 2008, the number of students enrolled in public schools has increased by 37,438. The number of classroom teachers, however, has decreased by 4,280 as local school systems have scrambled to balance their budgets.
Out of the state’s 180 public school districts, 121 of them have shortened their school calendar from the former requirement of 180 days because they don’t have enough money to keep the doors open for a full academic year.
If the constitutional amendment is approved, it is estimated the state will divert another $430 million over the next five years from traditional public schools to the new “state charter schools.” That’s on top of the $5.7 billion we’ve already seen in austerity cuts.
“Until all of our public school students are in school for a full 180-day school year, until essential services like 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 redirect one more dollar away from Georgia’s local school districts,” state school Supt. John Barge said last week.
It is something to think about.
(Tom Crawford is editor of The Georgia Report, an internet news service at gareport.com that reports on government and politics in Georgia. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)