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Framing the charter school debate 

Why the Attorney General's heavy-handed policing hurts the charter school amendment discussion

Attorney General Sam Olens addresses the Republican National Convention earlier this summer.

Joeff Davis

Attorney General Sam Olens addresses the Republican National Convention earlier this summer.

Last week, Attorney General Sam Olens put school board officials statewide on notice. At the request of Georgia Schools Superintendent John Barge — who asked the state's chief legal advisor for his opinion — he sent out a letter reminding elected education officials that it is, in fact, illegal to electioneer using taxpayer resources.

That's hardly a new revelation. Yet it seemed that many had either forgotten or attempted to straddle the legal lines surrounding electoral advocacy in the proposed charter school amendment debate.

Barge became the center of this controversy about two weeks ago after Glenn Delk, a private Atlanta attorney who once pushed for Buckhead's secession from the city, filed a complaint against the superintendent. He alleged that the official instructed his "taxpayer-paid staff to engage in political activity" by helping him create a 29-point anti-charter amendment document.

"I do not value siphoning money from our schools to support state charter schools or to create a new and unnecessary state agency," Barge stated in this article, titled "Constitution Amendment Facts." "I simply cannot support the charter school amendment."

The paper, which Barge posted on the Department of Education's website, received enough backlash that the department not only took it offline but also publicly announced a neutral stance toward the entire referendum. Delk effectively silenced Barge, but he did so at the expense of voters at large.

There's a razor-thin line between improper electioneering and informing the public — as elected officials possessing intimate knowledge of the charter process — about the inherent facts surrounding the issue. I'm not suggesting that Barge or any other school official should use their elected positions to influence voters, because that's obviously illegal. I do want to know their positions, however, as these are the people who understand the true ramifications of the charter amendment.

That won't happen anymore. Sometime within the next two weeks — potentially more than half of the remaining days before the Nov. 6 election — Olens will send out a follow-up letter that should enlighten elected officials on the potential penalties for electoral advocacy on either side of the issue. Technically, these individuals can still express their opinions using their own time and resources. But with possible legal action looming from the attorney general's office, officials are probably going to play it safe rather than compromise their positions.

In addition, this vigilant policing means that for-profit groups with private agendas now control what could very well become an increasingly unbalanced discourse. Most school board officials — without personally weighing in on the merits of either argument — happen to oppose amendment one. But with Olens strongly encouraging them to tone down their advocacy against the Georgia Charter School Commission's reinstatement, this means that pro-amendment supporters will move further into the spotlight.

Emmet Bondurant — another Atlanta lawyer whose prior case was cited in Olens' letter — points out that prohibiting school boards from advocating their own causes allows "for-profit charter schools, and wealthy ideologues ... to spend unlimited amounts of private funds on TV, print and direct mails aimed at persuading voters to ratify the amendment."

That increased, unbalanced exposure is alarming — again, not because of the side it supports, but because of who gets to express that opinion. Moving forward, the debate is likely to shift into the hands of groups with private agendas, framing the conversation in line with their respective causes.

I don't care how convincing either group's position may be, the fact that these arguments aren't from official voices — the ones whose opinions are formed, you know, by their real-world experience — is disconcerting. There's a kink in the current system, as the status quo harms voters by denying them the best possible information from those most familiar with the issue at hand.

In a media conference last Thursday following his letter, the attorney general commented that his remarks hardly set a new legal precedent, but rather reaffirm a ruling made more than 30 years ago. In Olens' words: "The government can't tax you and then use your tax money to tell you how to vote."

His letter to Barge, however, specifically targets "local government entities" — narrowing its aim to leave out perhaps the state's biggest offender: Gov. Nathan Deal.

The governor, who has repeatedly remained outspoken in his support for the charter school amendment, released a statement on March 19 when the resolution first passed, sending the amendment to a referendum on the upcoming ballot. In his official correspondence — one that quite possibly used taxpayer resources — he avowed: "I hope Georgians will cast their vote for protecting and promoting schools that have a strong record of student achievement."

Recently, however, his office changed the statement to read: "There's a great need in our state for protecting and promoting schools that have a strong record of student achievement." Deal spokesperson Brian Robinson had indicated that the change was a voluntary one, nevertheless, the governor's website still doesn't indicate that he actually made a revision to his original remarks.

Despite being asked numerous times, Olens has yet to comment on the obvious contradiction in his enforcement actions between the local and state level. It's highly regrettable, as there's a strong chance now that the referendum will be decided without fair representation from the key figures in the charter school amendment debate. No matter which way Georgians vote on amendment one, it will likely happen without the right dogs in the fight.

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