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Friday, October 12, 2012

The two sides of the charter school amendment debate

Bert Brantley (left) of Families for Better Public Schools and Jane Lnagley of Vote Smart Georgia breakdown the charter school debate
  • Courtesy of Bert Brantley/Courtesy of Jane Langley
  • Bert Brantley (left) of Families for Better Public Schools and Jane Langley of Vote Smart Georgia breakdown the charter school debate

In less than one month, voters will decide the proposed charter school amendment, which would allow the state to authorize charter schools without local school boards' consent. Much of the recent discourse has turned towards the electoral advocacy taking place on both sides of the debate. With polls indicating that the referendum could go either way, there's a lot at stake for all parties involved.

Over the course of the past week, CL spoke with Bert Brantley of Families for Better Public Schools, a pro-charter amendment group, and Jane Langley of Vote Smart Georgia, an anti-charter amendment coalition. In each of these conversations, the two representatives offered compelling arguments for why voters should cast a ballot either for or against the amendment.

Both of our conversations with these spokespeople delved into many of the nuances presented during the ongoing debate. We've posted excerpts from those separate discussions, breaking down the points Brantley and Langley made on various aspects surrounding the charter school amendment referendum.

On the merits of charter school authorization at local vs. state level

“[The State charter commission] has a record... it had been there before and we have a clear record what they did while they were there. They did not usurp local control.” — Bert Brantley, Families for Better Public Schools

“The state has more than 200 charter schools... the vast majority of those approved by local school boards.” — Jane Langley, Vote Smart Georgia

“APS has a great record for approving charter schools. Of course they do, because there’s demand for it. They want it. If you look at Drew Charter — very successful elementary and middle school — when they went to make their high school application, the superintendent said, 'We have empty seats at Jackson High School. We should deny their charter application because we have these empty seats over here. It was only because the community rallied that [they] got that turned around.'... Was that decision based on what was best for those kids? No, it what was best for the system or the finances or Jackson — but not for those kids who went to elementary and middle school at Drew Charter and wanted to continue into the high school.” — BB

“If a local board turns down a charter school or if the state board turns down a charter school, the reasons are governance and financial. Local boards don’t willfully deny a charter school application.” — JL

“Sometimes local control doesn’t work, and so as much as I believe in that, I think there should also be a check and an appeal if possible.” — BB

On the accountability of a state charter commission, which would be created if amendment one passes

“It will assure a small group of seven people — appointed by the governor, lieutenant governor and speaker — can make all the decisions about children’s education. They’re appointed, not elected, and therefore not accountable to anyone.” — JL

“All commission decisions still go through the board, so to say that this commission is going to be willy nilly — approving with no oversight — is wrong. The board still gets to have that approval as well.” — BB

On the statewide academic performance between charter and traditional public schools.

“If you look at the statewide average of charters versus the statewide average of all schools, then you get this 73 versus 70 [percent AYP statistic]. I think it’s [a] pretty easy belief that you should compare charter schools to the districts where they are located, and not to the entire state... particularly when so many of them are located in historically underperforming areas... They fill needs.” — BB

“According the GCSA’s own annual report — this is their annual report — on the Department of Education website, the performance metrics are almost equal with that of public schools... They say, 'oh no, you can’t compare district to district.' My response is anything else is apples to oranges.” — JL

On the potential costs at the state level if amendment one passes

“This is an expansion of state government — we already have the mechanism to improve state charter schools on the local level, and if they are denied [then] on the state level. This [commission] adds another layer of bureaucracy for something we already have.” — JL

“There are people in the [state Department of Education's] charter school division right now that will come over from the division to the [reinstated] commission — just as it was before. Those people from the commission, when it dissolved, went to the charter school division. Those positions could come back to the commission. The money for the commission is actually taken out of the money sent to the schools — not a separate line item budget.” — BB

"This little group will cause the taxpayers an additional $1 million a year when the state economy is still struggling and the public school budgets have already been cut by $1 million a year. The only way to pay for what I call these “new schools” is to pull even more money out of the state money that funds public schools." — JL

“Even if you didn’t move those people, the money for the commission comes out of the money that goes to the schools... When the commission was in place, they could spend up to 3 percent — there’s essentially an administrative fee, which by the way, local boards get as well when they do charters. Every year, the commission returned money back to the [state department of education] because they didn’t need it — they spent less than that. I think it was a very efficient and effective organization. They only had the people they needed, and again it wasn’t 'extra' dollars. I would argue, that you actually could save the department money, because if you move those folks over, and you take their salaries out of the state charter funds, then you save the department those dollars.” — BB

On what more charter schools means for traditional public school funding

“The argument here — if you have a thousand kids in a school, [then] a charter school opens, and a hundred of those kids go to the charter — let’s say a state charter. Well, those 900 kids who are left have all of the local dollars that remain with them plus the state portion that they get for those 900 kids. In terms of per pupil, those 900 kids — in terms of local money — the [local amount] per pupil actually goes up, and the per pupil stays the same from the state... You’ve got government and legislative leadership writing in the law that funding state charters will not impact local districts and school funding.” — BB

“Public schools still have to pay for facilities, maintenance, buses, etc. In an era when we have so many school systems with fewer than 180 days, teacher furloughs, and school with overcrowded classrooms, we’re looking at more of that if amendment one passes.” — JL

“I get that there’s distrust — I’m not blind to that — but I think if you look at the overall system and how it works, it’s a small percentage of the overall education budget, the state charter portion of it. Secondly, because only the state money follows the child, you’re actually left with more local dollars — or the same local dollars — spread over less kids.” — BB

"There’s no money to fund expansion of schools where they need it, expansion of classrooms, additional teachers... [they’re] pulling more money out of public schools in order to fund these new schools. What folks are going to see is property taxes going up to pay for it. There’s no money to pay for this. We’re talking about new schools and $1 million for this small group of people making these decisions. It’s fiscally irresponsible." — JL

On skepticism regarding the opposition's motives behind their stance

“The real fear, frankly, is the ruling that the Supreme Court handed down in that lawsuit said that local boards had the exclusive authority to approve charter schools. It said in the ruling that they weren’t asked to evaluate the state Board of Education’s role in approving. They weren’t asked, but it was very clear that if they would be asked, they would have to come down...It wouldn’t even be a heavy lift of a lawsuit. As soon as that gets challenged — if you look at the [arguments] from the other side, they keep saying [the commission] is this unelected, appointed board that would have the ability to approve charters — well that’s what the state board is.” — BB

“I saw a recent article calling it the 'T-SPLOST of Education.’ If voters don’t trust the government to build and repair roads and bridges, how in the world do they trust the same folks — a small group, seven people — to decide a schools and use their taxpayer money to pay for it.” — JL

“I don’t think it’s a big leap to say — if it’s a no vote in November — the next step is for these systems to say, now we’ll sue because we don’t believe that unelected, appointed boards should approve charters... I can’t speak for them, but if you look at their rhetoric and look at the stuff they’re putting out... if they feel like there’s an end benefit to them, that they will do it. I think a 'no’ vote will embolden them to say, “well, the voters are with us... it should be all local boards.” — BB

On Ivy Prep, a charter school commonly cited in the charter school amendment debate

“Ivy Prep’s academic performance is no better than the public schools in Gwinnett County. As long as you’re bringing up Ivy Prep — how many days and weeks are they going to put those uniformed children on buses to go to every press conference and stand in front of TV cameras and read a prepared speech? I can understand one trip to the Capitol, maybe two. I think that is unfair to children. This is not about charter schools. Georgia has charter schools, Georgia has the means to have more, and will. This is not about education, this not about kids, and this is not about families. This is about money to be made on the taxpayer’s back.” — JL

“We live in Henry County. My kids go to a terrific public school. My wife teaches there. If a charter school opened next door to our school, we wouldn’t go there — we love it. It’s fantastic. But there are a lot of kids who just don’t have that opportunity. There are kids who aren’t as fortunate as we are. I really view this as an opportunity for some. If you talk to the kids and parents at Ivy Prep or Atlanta Heights — a 100 percent African American male population — most of them, because they’re there, are incredibly pleased and very thankful to have the school there. In my view, we should be expanding those opportunities, not restricting them.” — BB

On the issues arising from last week’s letter between Attorney General Sam Olens and Superintendent John Barge

“Democracy is about the ability to disagree and defend. What we’re seeing in Georgia is frighteningly close to only allowing one side to voice their opinion. That should worry folks.” — JL

“We’ve seen this over and over — systems using tax money to argue for continuing a tax. It’s been litigated over and over... I didn’t read it as teachers or educators or superintendents can’t be politically involved.” — BB

“I think that they are crossing dangerously close to crossing freedom of speech issues. The people who are advocating 'vote no' are not using tax dollars in their advocacy — what’s good for the goose is good for the gander. Charter schools also receive state funding, which is taxpayer money. They’re still being allowed to advocate. I noticed in Olens’ statement, he didn’t comment on charter school’s advocacy because nobody asked. Well, nobody has called the governor and the leadership. I think there are serious freedom of speech issues here in ruling that a select group cannot speak out and give their opinion.” — JL

“I think the real problem is that the opposing side only creating a vote-no organization. On our side, we have a 501(c)(3) organization, the GCSA, that only do charter awareness. You see billboards up [that say], 'support charters,' 'my charter’s great'... it’s not telling anyone how to vote. That’s what GCSA does — they help charter schools create awareness. In my opinion, where they’re getting into trouble on the other side is that all of the information says, 'vote no.' On our side, we have a campaign committee that is formed specifically to advocate for the election. Then there’s a 501-c3 organization that you won’t see any advocacy, it’s just charter [awareness]. If they would’ve done both on their side, they probably could’ve used school resources to deliver their neutral messaging. They just didn’t do that.” — BB

Final general comments on the charter school amendment debate

“There are good charter schools and not-so-good charter schools. Good public schools and not-so-good public schools. This is about whether you want a small group appointed by politicians to make decisions about schools.” — JL

"It’s not one of those things that are red or blue — high quality is very subjective — but the whole goal is: can we get a process in place where high quality charters are approved?” — BB

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