November 4, 2012

Voters to decide fate of controversial charter schools amendment

By Christopher Smith

— The charter schools amendment on Tuesday’s ballot will be resolved when voters approve or reject the proposal after several weeks of heated debate, numerous opinion pieces and at least two lawsuits.

There was also the cancellation of a Greater Dalton Chamber of Commerce breakfast that was to focus on the amendment and include the superintendents of the Dalton and Whitfield County school systems.

The local chamber’s decision to cancel the breakfast was a sign of the “tense legal climate,” said school officials.

“There has been a lot of controversy from state leadership, including Attorney General Sam Olens’ warning to school officials about the way they talk about the amendment,” Chamber President and CEO Brian Anderson said. “We don’t want to put our local officials in a bad situation. There’s uncertainty right now about what they can and cannot say between personal time and on-the-clock time in regards to the ballot.”

Dalton teacher Beverly Hedges and an Atlanta reverend filed a lawsuit last week claiming the language on the ballot leading into the amendment is purposely misleading. The preamble says the amendment “provides for improving student achievement and parental involvement through more public charter school options.”

“It doesn’t tell you that it allows for-profit companies to manage charter schools. It doesn’t tell you these decisions will be made by an unelected commission appointed by the governor,” Hedges said.

The ballot question itself reads, “Shall the Constitution of Georgia be amended to allow state or local approval of public charter schools upon the request of local communities?”

If the amendment becomes law it will allow groups to propose new charter schools — publicly-funded, self-reliant schools that can see some education requirements waived and replace them with alternative teaching plans — to a seven-member state committee appointed by the governor. Currently, groups have to go through the local school board, or an appeals process at the state level if the school board rejects the proposal.

‘A chance to serve’

Mark Peevy, executive director for the pro-amendment organization Families for Better Public Schools, believes bypassing the local board gives parents more choice.

“If parents and community members want to start charter schools and end up with a district that just doesn’t want them to open up, the state has an appeals process where that can happen,” he said. “Almost all charter schools are started by a group of concerned parents, community members — folks like that — so they get a chance to serve.”

And a chance to enhance job possibilities for students, said Kelly McCutchen, co-founder and chair for Tech High charter school in Atlanta.

“If a child is at risk of not graduating, they will probably be struggling for the rest of their lives,” McCutchen said. “All children are different and learn differently and they need different options. We need to empower parents to do what’s right for children.”

An unholy marriage?

Many opponents of the amendment say it would empower state officials and for-profit companies, not parents.

“We’ll have companies come on the new charter schools as shareholders who will make millions of dollars off our kids in this unholy marriage of the public and private sector,” Fred Gould, a local director with the Georgia Association of Educators, said. “You’re not making an even playing field for competition either, the economics are unbalanced. At the same time, the state has failed to fund public schools already, giving out 59 cents to the dollar of what the schools should get.”

The Whitfield County Board of Education, the Murray County Board of Education and the Dalton Board of Education all passed resolutions against the amendment prior to Olens’ letter to state School Superintendent John Barge that school system officials “do not have the legal authority to expend funds or other resources to advocate or oppose the ratification of a constitutional amendment by the voters. They may not do this directly or indirectly through associations to which they may belong.”

Whitfield County Schools Superintendent Danny Hayes said the school system “has not and will not violate any laws.”

“I’ve read the same thing everyone else read in the news,” said Hayes. “Any time I’ve spoken, I’ve tried to be neutral on it and I think that’s what the law requires us to do. We’re not out there to tell people how to vote.”

Both Hayes and his city counterpart, Superintendent Jim Hawkins, declined to discuss the amendment last week due to the “legal climate.”

“People are individuals and they have the same rights to free speech,” Eric Beavers, community and media relations specialist for Whitfield County Schools, said. “However, when working as public officials on school time we do not take a position either way, except for the resolution that was adopted earlier.”

The resolutions do not ask voters to take a position, said school officials.

“The resolution passed by the board last month merely stated the board’s opposition to the amendment,” Mike Tuck, spokesman for Murray County Schools, said. “Our citizens expect their elected officials to speak out on such matters of public importance. The Murray County school board, by resolution or otherwise, has neither made any attempt to influence the electorate, nor, obviously, utilized any public funds to do so. The board is fully compliant with all applicable laws.”

There has no been no warning against the local school boards, said Pat Holloway, spokeswoman for Dalton Public Schools.

“We haven’t had anything communicated locally,” Holloway said. “We’ve gotten things from the state department that told us not to use money to campaign, but those are cautionary, general emails that were sent to every other superintendent in the state.”