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Charter amendment seems destined for court fight

Posted: October 10, 2012 - 12:03am

The campaign on the charter school constitutional amendment seems destined to end up in a courtroom rather than a classroom.

During the past couple of weeks, I haven’t heard many constructive discussions on this important issue. The talk instead has been dominated by threats of lawsuits and litigation, and even prosecutions over the campaign tactics being used by the two sides.

In the middle of all these legal threats has been the state’s top law enforcement official, Attorney General Sam Olens.

Olens recently advised state school Superintendent John Barge, who opposes the amendment, to remove information from the state Department of Education Web site that outlined the adverse impact the charter school amendment would have on state funding for public schools. Barge had the information taken down.

Olens sent a letter to Barge a few days later ordering local school boards not to spend any public tax funds in their campaigning on the amendment. Olens is now drafting a second letter in which he will advise Barge of the “enforcement actions” the attorney general’s office could take against school boards that campaign against the amendment.

If Olens thought his threats of legal action would muzzle the opponents of the charter school amendment, he was mistaken.

On the day after Olens sent his letter to Barge, the Richmond County school board held a forum to educate people on the charter school issue and urged voters to reject the proposed amendment.

“School board members and superintendents don’t lose their First Amendment rights to speak their minds about an issue,” said Herb Garrett of the Georgia School Superintendents Association.

Barge also intends to keep talking about the controversial ballot question.

“The department has no opinion on the issue, but Superintendent Barge will continue to voice his opposition to the amendment,” said Matt Cardoza, a Department of Education spokesman.

It’s too bad for the voters that the talk about this issue has been more about who’s going to sue rather than the merits of the amendment itself.

The amendment would establish a state commission with the power to approve charter schools that are turned down by local school boards. This would be a major shift of control over how local tax funds for education are spent: instead of an elected school board making the decision, you would have a state committee of political appointees allocating your money.

One aspect of this amendment that should be getting more attention is where the contributions are coming from to run the campaigns on both sides of the amendment.

The group promoting passage of the amendment, Families for Better Schools, has received most of its donations from out-of-state sources and for-profit companies that make their money by operating charter schools.

K12 Inc., a company based in Virginia that operates online schools, has donated $100,000 to the amendment supporters. Charter Schools USA, a for-profit company based in Florida that contracts with charter school organizers to operate their schools, contributed $50,000 to the charter group.

National Heritage Academies, a Michigan-based company that operates 74 charter schools in nine states, contributed $25,000 to the charter amendment group; the company’s founder, J.C. Huizenga, contributed another $25,000.

It’s easy to understand why these out-of-state companies are so interested in the passage of a Georgia amendment: They see an opportunity to move into the state and boost their profits by grabbing tax funds that normally would be allocated to public schools.

The organization opposing the amendment, Vote SMART, hasn’t been able to raise as much money as the supporters, but most of its contributions have come from teachers and educators in Georgia school systems.

These political contributions get to the heart of the question on this education issue: Is it better to have schools operated by people who choose to live and work in Georgia, or is it preferable to turn the schools over to out-of-state companies whose priority is profits rather than student performance?

That’s what should be debated more intensely in the campaign over the charter school amendment, but instead I hear more talk about threats of lawsuits.

Charter schools are an important part of the school choices that are already available to our students. Are they so important that they justify taking away local control of education tax dollars? Let’s discuss that.

(Tom Crawford is editor of The Georgia Report, an internet news service at gareport.com.)

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