A survey last week of Georgians’ opinions regarding several issues before the state Legislature determined that just 16 percent strongly favor the attempt to amend the state constitution to allow charter schools without local oversight.
That tiny minority who still harbor a tingly fondness for charter schools, then, really should read the recent commentary by Dick Yarbrough in The Athens Daily News (you can find it at http://onlineathens.com/opinion/2012-03-13/yarbrough-charter-schools-may...).
Yarbrough follows the money trail and nails it:
“It’s not about the kids,” he writes. “It’s about money and politics and influence-peddling.”
Yarbrough examined the charter schools system in Florida, which has been at the game much longer. What he’s found is that politicians have found a way to cut themselves and their friends into the lucrative stream of money spent on public education.
It’s a lot of money: Despite several years of “austerity” cuts, the state will spend more than $9 billion this year on K-12 public education.
The state constitution prevents Georgia’s public school funding from being spent on anything other than education. That’s why Columbia County’s school system, for example, solicits donations from businesses so it can hold a teacher of the year banquet.
But what if there was a way to divert money from public schools, still spend it (sort of) on education, but allow private businesses to get into the game – where they can then reward the politicians who make it all possible?
That’s what Yarbrough found in Florida, based on an exhaustive Miami Herald study of the state’s for-profit charter schools.
“In Miami-Dade and Broward counties, the Herald reported, almost two-thirds of charter schools are run by management companies, which charge fees ranging from 5 percent to 18 percent of school income – income that can exceed $1 million a year,” Yarbrough writes. “Further, the paper says, many management companies also control the school’s land and buildings, and collect as much as 25 percent of a school’s revenue in lease payments.”
Yarbrough disovers that a Georgia charter school rejected by the school board in Cherokee County, Ga. – home of Senate Majority Leader Chip Rogers, a Republican leading the charge to enable more charter schools without local oversight – would have been run by one such company: The for-profit Charter Schools USA, of Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
It was that school’s rejection by the Cherokee County School Board that apparently licked the red off the apple of Rogers and the rest of their legislative delegation. With the charter’s rejection, and because of the state Supreme Court ruling that the state constitution (there’s that inconvenient document again) doesn’t allow charter schools without oversight from elected school board members, lawmakers who were itching to help those for-profit education companies went to work on amending the constitution.
In addition, Cherokee’s vindictive lawmakers are now trying to redraw their local school board districts to throw four of the seven incumbents into two seats, targeting two up for election this year who voted against the for-profit charter school. Nice.
Still believe all the smoke and mirrors that the charter school movement is about “choice” in education? Baloney. This is about nothing more than politicians and their pals looking to get your money in their pockets. That’s why charter lobbyists have been spending so much on this legislation.
If, along the way, the charter school proponents could claim to improve education, we might not have an argument. But lo and behold: The most recent study on the topic finds that existing charter schools in Georgia, as a whole, perform no better than public schools overall – and graduation rates from charters actually are slightly worse.
Because they can’t prove charters are better, the only explanation for the urgency in pushing a constitutional amendment to allow them without local electoral oversight is the politicians’ never-ending need to reward their friends in return for a little back-scratching.
“This isn’t about the children,” Yarbrough writes. “It’s about money and political influence and special interests.”
State Rep. Ben Harbin (who, like me, is married to a public-school educator) is the only local lawmaker to reject the charter amendment. State Reps. Barbara Sims and state Rep. Lee Anderson (a former Columbia County school board member who is married to a retired educator) voted for it. And as one of the governor’s floor leaders, state Sen. Bill Jackson (a former Columbia County school board member) is pushing it.
They owe constituents an explanation, particularly when there are no complaints about local schools that would justify this attempt to siphon more money from them.
(Barry L. Paschal is publisher of The Columbia County News-Times. Email firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow at twitter.com/barrypaschal.)