Civics Lessons

CCGA Board Member John Sugg recently wrote this opinion piece for Creative Loafing about the hotly debated charter school amendment, which is up for a vote this November. The views and opinions expressed in this post are not necessarily those of Common Cause Georgia or Common Cause national. 

Our intent with this blog is to allow for informed opinions from all perspectives, we realize that many posts will be controversial and not necessarily match our organization’s opinion, however, we think that vigorous debate is healthy for democracy and encourages public engagement. We welcome blog contributions that encourage citizens to engage in the political process.

The only math that many Georgia legislators learned goes like this: If a lobbyist gives you a few dollars above the table and a few more dollars quietly under the table, the sum is equal to thousands and thousands of taxpayer dollars, which are larded onto the lobbyist’s clients via needless government policies and programs.

And that’s exactly the “new math” that’s going on with the Georgia Charter Schools Amendment on the Nov. 6 ballot. The usual Gold Dome gang — “what’s in it for me” politicians and lobbyists, the people who really call the shots — last year passed Georgia’s harsh immigration law while they were raking in cash from the private prison industry. Thus, the for-profit prison companies hoped the decidedly racist immigration law would provoke a surge in the prison population.

Retooling the same strategy this year for education, the legislators are whining “gimme, gimme more freebies” to their lobbyist pals who represent the charter school industry.

Shepherding both misbegotten pieces of law is the American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC, a sneaky corporate-funded outfit that creates “model” legislation that Republican state lawmakers obediently inject into policy agendas. ALEC’s scheme is all about diminishing your rights at the expense of corporations.

And for Republican politicians, it means they don’t have to do the work of actually crafting laws; they just sign their names to what ALEC writes and then pick up mountains of “gifts” from lobbyists. A neat system for everyone but the common folk.

But not all Republicans buy the ALEC/lobbyist spin on charter schools. Many kudos are deserved for John Barge, Georgia’s superintendent of schools and an honest conservative. When I asked Barge if the Charter School Amendment was being pushed by companies that stand to make a windfall, he responded: “Yes, I’d have to agree with that.” Barge says that “millions of dollars in state funds that state charter schools would receive will go into the pockets of out-of-state, for-profit charter school companies.”

The charter school industry (let’s call it what it is, an industry, and understand that its motives are necessarily profits, but not necessarily high-quality education) has lavished contributions on top Republican leaders.

Several key state legislators — GOP Reps. Jan Jones of north Fulton County and Edward Lindsey of Atlanta — are members of ALEC. Notably, much of the language in the Georgia law voters will decide on Nov. 6 was cribbed from ALEC’s “model.”

The first issue at stake — as spun by the charter school industry and legislators — is that local school systems are egregiously deep-sixing charter school applications. Keep in mind, charter schools ARE public schools. They have operational and curriculum autonomy, and they claim to promote innovative strategies. But because they are publicly funded, they are public schools. The amendment would create a state-level agency to approve charters, another layer of government with a million dollar annual, unnecessary cost.

The second issue always assumed by amendment proponents is that charter schools produce superior educational outcomes. They don’t. Last year, “Georgia’s traditional public schools outperformed its charter schools, with 73 percent making [Adequate Yearly Progress] compared to 70 percent of charter schools,” Barge says.

Local school systems routinely approve charters. If the applications are denied, state law already allows an appeal to the state Board of Education. The constitutional amendment would remove local control, in the form of local school boards, from the process. The amendment was proposed after the Georgia Supreme Court overturned an earlier law that would have created state charter schools and forced local school systems to pay for the schools. The underlying plan in the amendment is to vest power in a state commission. Local schools and the public would have little say in creating and monitoring charter schools. Real power would rest with the for-profit industry, which already has contracts with 60 percent of Georgia’s charter schools.

Even more important, Barge has estimated that if only seven new state charter schools are created each year, it would result in $430 million in ADDITIONAL necessary state funding. That would further erode education dollars.

State lawmakers supporting the amendment claim the money won’t come out of state funds designated to local school systems — but that’s pure sophistry. It’s still state money that should rightfully be used for local schools.

Georgia schools have been hit by more than $5 billion in draconian cutbacks in the past nine years. As a result of that terrible record, 121 out of the state’s 180 school systems have been forced to cut the education year below the minimum 180 days. Since 2008, 4,423 teachers in the state have been laid off.

The result for Georgia? Why would any enterprise want to move to a state with a workforce lacking educational skills? Most companies, especially technology firms, wouldn’t.

Still, two industries could have booming growth. Corporate charter schools would flourish, and with their documented sub-par records, they’d produce young adults without sufficient skills. Many of those people would turn to crime, and thereby boost the populations of the private prisons.

Isn’t this a great state?

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