Residents, teachers, advocates discuss proposed charter amendment

Daniel Beauregard
Champion Newspaper

With the November elections several weeks away, one of the major issues residents will be voting on is Amendment 1, which involves the creation of state-funded charter schools.

A large group of parents, community members and others gathered at the International Community School in Decatur Oct. 17 for an information session hosted by the Emory LaVista Parent Council (ELPC).

"Today's program is really about giving you the opportunity to hear, in a substantive way, about the charter school amendment," said Marshall Orson, co-founder of the ELPC and soon-to-be DeKalb County School Board member.

Rep. Scott Holcomb (D-Atlanta) explained both the legal and legislative aspects of the proposed amendment. Several years ago, the state established the Georgia Charter Schools Commission (GCSC), which allowed the state to authorize charter schools that had been denied charters by local schools boards. However, a lawsuit was filed and in 2011 the Georgia Supreme Court struck down the commission.

"That then left a very important legal vacuum about what to do, so when the General Assembly went back into session last year we took this up," Holcomb said.

Holcomb, who has a first-grader at Henderson Elementary, said it is important for voters to understand the amendment does not impact local charter schools.

"What is at issue here is a state body that would authorize these charter schools and the state funds to be used for it," Holcomb said.

Since 2003, the state has cut education funding by nearly $5 billion and Holcomb said the "million-dollar question" is, if the amendment passes, how the state will manage to fund the schools created and maintain the same funding levels for local school districts.

Holcomb also said the federal Race to the Top funds the state receives could increase by having a "secondary authorizer" or an agency akin to the GCSC.

Mark Peevy, former executive director of the GCSC, said the amendment is really about giving parents choices as to where to send their children to school.

"We want to make sure that there are options available. Regardless of ZIP code or your financial situation, we think it's important," Peevy said.

Peevy said a perfect example of how the amendment can benefit residents is the success the GCSC had in previous years—Peevy said it has a "proven track record." During the two-and-a-half years the GCSC was in operation, it authorized 16 schools that were denied charters by local school boards.

"There shouldn't be a limit—a cap—put on a child's ability to excel academically based on where he or she lives or based on his or her parents' financial status," Peevy said.

Margaret Ciccarelli, a representative for the Professional Association of Georgia Educators, lives in Decatur and has a daughter attending City Schools of Decatur's (CSD) College Heights Early Learning Center; CSD is a charter system, which means all the schools in it are charter schools.

"This is really a debate about money," Ciccarelli said.

Ciccarelli said even though the court struck down the GCSC, the state board of education could authorize charter schools at the state level. Peevy disagreed and said the court's dissenting opinion stated that the only reason its ruling didn't involve whether the state board could authorize charter schools was because the court wasn't asked to consider it. Peevy said many legal officials, including Georgia Attorney General Sam Olens, think the outcome would have been the same.

The companion bill, HB 797, lays out the funding process if the GCSC is allowed to be created again. According to Ciccarelli, state-authorized charter schools will be funded at 2.5 times the rate of funding that the state sends to existing local schools.

"The reason that rate is higher is because the state is trying to make up for the local funding that will not go to state charter students because they are state-authorized charter schools," Ciccarelli said.

Ciccarelli said she is sympathetic to the frustrations many parents have with their local school systems such as dysfunctional school boards and administrative bloat. However, she said the GCSC won't fix any of those problems.

"I think there's an attempt to sell Amendment 1 to voters as a way to fix this problem," Ciccarelli said.

Peevy said that the funding mechanism in HB 797 ties funding for state-authorized charter schools to the bottom 5 percent of districts across the state. According to Peevy, it would be a very small percentage of money in comparison to the 47 percent of the state's budget that is spent on education.

Retired DeKalb County School teacher Dawn Hamer asked Peevy and Ciccarelli if they are concerned that nearly 95 percent of campaign funding for the amendment has come from out-of-state education management companies.

"This amendment does nothing to open a door for for-profit education management organizations coming to Georgia. I want to be very clear that all charter schools in Georgia have to be nonprofits based here in Georgia operated by a locally based governing board," Peevy stated.

Ciccarelli said Hamer's question was timely and that residents need to consider the issue when voting for the amendment.

"I think that we do need to ask who the for-profit companies are that might benefit from the passage of the amendment," Ciccarelli said.

"It's interesting that 60 percent of the commission-approved charter schools were managed by these for-profit companies as opposed to the 12 percent of local schools that are managed by for-profits."

Link to original article found here.

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