Georgia charter school amendment on the way to passing

Proponents of public school choice will have another way to get their charter school petitions approved in Georgia if Tuesday night's election returns continue their trend.

With 139 of 159 counties reporting, the ballot's Constitutional Amendment No. 1 was leading by a margin of 58 percent to 42 percent.

Gov. Nathan Deal and school choice advocates had pitched the amendment as a way to give Georgia families more educational options. State schools superintendent John Barge led educator groups in opposition, saying it would lessen local control and siphon public money away from existing schools.

Control over charters now rests mostly with local school boards, though operators who are denied can appeal to the Georgia Board of Education. This amendment will allow the state to create a charter commission to consider petitions rejected by their local schools board and the state board.

In 2008, that's what the Georgia Legislature did, but the Georgia Supreme Court ruled in 2011 that the state's constitution allows only school boards to create charter schools. So the idea's proponents decided to seek a constitutional amendment.

State Rep. Richard Smith (R-Columbus) said the amendment is a victory for more school choice.

"The charter schools are another option, a chance for parents and students in failing school systems to go to successful schools," he said. "Fortunately, Columbus and Harris County don't fit in that failing category, but that's not true all over the state. If you compare us to other states, we're way down near the bottom in education, and we've got to try something."

Opponents of the amendment say charter schools not approved by local boards will siphon money away from public school districts. Smith disputed that notion and added, "We can't afford to let another generation of children fail statewide."

Opponents of the amendment objected to the question's wording on the ballot: "Shall the Constitution of Georgia be amended to allow state or local approval of public charter schools upon the request of local communities?"

Muscogee County School Board chairwoman Cathy Williams said the wording was "like saying do you believe in mom and apple pie, and if you don't, you're going to hell."

Opponents said state and local approval of charter schools already exists and the ballot doesn't mention the creation of another appeals panel.

"The question on the ballot was a lie to the people," Williams said.

All local counties were part of the majority favoring the amendment.

"I'm not entirely surprised when politicians go out of their way to deceive the people," Williams said.

Williams said a politically appointed charter appeals panel will allow for-profit companies to use public school tax dollars.

Smith countered that too many local school boards have rejected too many charter school petitions.

"The whole point of our educational system is to prepare our kids to be functional adults," he said. "And if you've got a school system that's not doing that, there needs to be another mechanism that will allow them."

The Georgia Department of Education defines a charter school as "a public school of choice that operates under the terms of a charter, or contract, with an authorizer, such as the state and local boards of education. Charter schools receive flexibility from certain state and local rules in exchange for a higher degree of accountability for raising student achievement."

The state has 110 charter schools, including 80 start-up charters and 30 conversion charters, according to the Georgia Department of Education. The state also has 14 charter systems, which include an additional 107 schools.

The Muscogee County School District has three charter schools, all previously existing elementary schools that converted to charters: Clubview, Reese Road and Wynnton.

The board unanimously approved the conversion charter petitions from Clubview (2005), Wynnton (2008) and Reese Road (2009), as well as Clubview's five-year renewal (2011).

-- The Associated Press contributed to this report