When the dust settled from the July 31 primary, the consensus was that the majority of voters did not trust current government officials with additional tax revenue. Now approaching the November general election, the question of the charter schools amendment is being framed by opponents as to whether Georgia's leaders can be trusted with tax revenues currently being raised.
Unlike the T-SPLOST, the Georgia charter schools amendment began with a generally high level of public and political support. The measure passed with more than 2/3 support from each body of the legislature, generating bipartisan backing required for passage. While generally viewed as a Republican measure, many Democrats also realize that their constituents are the ones trapped in the worst of public schools with few alternatives to a quality education.
The public has thus far generally supported a method for school choice provided that the monies remain within the public school sector. According to the coalition organized to campaign for the amendment's passage (in documents obtained and posted online by the AJC's Jim Galloway), the measure is favored 58 to 23 with 19% still undecided. The group claims that there was no shift in opinion between March and July.
Yet it was in August when the first major salvo was fired in opposition, one which came deep within Republican ranks. State School Superintendent John Barge announced he would align with local school boards and teacher organizations in opposition, saying that he opposed a new state bureaucracy and giving credence to the argument that the amendment usurps local control. Supporters argue that there is nothing more local than the parent of a student trapped in a poor school, and giving that parent a viable option is the best way to fight the real entrenched bureaucracy.
With Barge as the highest ranking member of the education establishment helping to galvanize the opposition's message, they are now expanding the attack to a new front. Jim Galloway noted that the organizations created to pass the measure are taking a page from the T-SPLOST campaign playbook. It should also not go unnoticed that the opposition is doing the same.
Opponents are now targeting the fact that the money being raised to pass the amendment is coming from out of state. They are also honing in on the fact that much of this out-of-state support is from for-profit charter school management companies.
The issue they wish to frame is clear. The K-12 education budget is huge, and the largest single expenditure within the state budget. Columnist Dick Yarbrough articulates the concern as such:
The amendment is about "allowing legislators to get their hands on the big money that for-profit charter school management companies can donate to their campaign coffers in return for political influence to operate charter schools." He then highlights campaign donations made from Charter Schools USA to Gov. Nathan Deal, Senate Majority Leader Chip Rogers and House Speaker Pro-Tem Jan Jones.
Following the money is a time-honored tradition in politics and specifically in campaigns. Yet the amount of money derived from campaign donations is not large relative to the size and scope of the proposed change. Furthermore, more funds are coming from out-of-state foundations that support school choice than from the private operators of some charter schools. These foundations have made Georgia ground zero in the school choice movement. They see success here as a template for bringing alternatives to failing public schools to parents and students across the nation.
It will be easy to point to state leaders who have a history of ethical lapses and insider dealings as a reason to hold back support for this amendment. Doing so, however, is a false choice.
Voters also have the current images of Chicago teachers and their entrenched education establishment refusing to educate students because they are unsatisfied with a 16% pay raise from taxpayers who haven't seen growth in household income for years. While Georgia doesn't have teachers unions with collective bargaining, the education establishment does have significant political clout to preserve the status quo.
The bottom line is this: The status quo is failing. Georgia has tried throwing money at the problem. It is time to try something different. Yet if voters ultimately decide to vote against this measure, the change in public support will lie squarely on the growing issue of mistrust that is enveloping state leadership.
Charlie Harper, author and editor of the Peach Pundit blog, writes on Georgia politics and government; www.peachpundit.com.