By Mike Klein
Georgia voters – the people whose tax dollars pay the bills at every public school system statewide – are one step closer toward being allowed to decide whether the state should have the authority to create and fund charter schools over the opposition of local school boards.
Wednesday afternoon the state House approved HR 1162 by a slim 123 – 48 margin. That is three votes more than the measure needed for two-thirds super majority passage and 13 more than a different version received during the House floor vote two weeks ago. The bill moves to the Senate where an education committee hearing is scheduled for 1:00pm Thursday.
“There have been a lot of people working hard and their efforts paid off,” said Tony Roberts, CEO at the Georgia Charter Schools Association. “This is certainly just the first battle in the war for our children to have options and choices in education which they so desperately need.”
The debate has pitted school choice advocates against a Georgia Supreme Court opinion last May that overturned the state charter schools commission. It polarized political parties with Republicans almost unanimously in support of state alternate authorization and Democrats almost unanimously in support of exclusive local school board authorization of new charters.
The test vote two weeks ago defined what HR 1162 would need to achieve two-thirds House passage. Critics demanded a much more specific definition of charter schools. That definition is now in the bill; state charter schools have been defined as public schools that are not private sectarian, religious or for-profit schools or private educational institutions.
Representatives who opposed the resolution two weeks ago also wanted assurance that local education dollars would not be used to fund state charter schools. “They will be funded only with state monies,” Speaker Pro Tem and HR 1162 sponsor Jan Jones said Wednesday.
Floor debate was scheduled for 90 minutes but lasted less than an hour. Six Democrats – three in support and three still opposed — and House Majority Whip Larry O’Neal all spoke at length about whether local school boards control public education – as the Supreme Court opinion stated last May – or whether the schools are a partnership between the state and local boards.
O’Neal said, “This is bigger than charter schools. Make no mistake; when courts invent their own words like exclusive and sole they are indeed making law. I urge you to vote yes and move this measure across the hall and one step closer to the people to let them make the decision.”
Democrat Kathy Ashe voted no two weeks ago. Over the past two weeks she spoke strongly about revisions. Her floor remarks Wednesday were forceful. “Sausage making is not always pretty but I come to the well today to say this process has worked,” Ashe said.
“I hope we talk long and hard about how charter schools are just a tiny portion of the public school system,” Ashe said. “Yes, charter schools are public schools. I hope we talk long and hard about what’s on the ballot because I want folks in Georgia to know there are going to be two ways to charter schools.
“The way it’s going to happen most frequently is with a local board saying, yes, let’s enter into a contract but in the rare occasion that there is a subject area, if there is a geographic reason to bring different school systems together to create a very special charter school, it may be that a secondary authorizer is the way to go.
“I comfortably ask you to vote for this version of 1162,” Ashe said. “Sometimes this process is ugly. Sometimes we get all fired up and say things we don’t really mean but in the long run, this process is the best way we know how to make law and 1162 is a good example of coming together for the students of Georgia.”
Her fellow Democrat Rashad Taylor was unconvinced: “This bill is about giving a new authority a new power to create schools in communities that have otherwise rejected those applications,” Taylor said. “There is nothing in this resolution, nothing that guarantees that public school funding will not decrease because of charter schools. Mr. Speaker, 1162 is a one-size fits all strategy that really doesn’t fit anything in Georgia.”
Democrat Scott Holcomb – like Ashe — voted against the resolution two weeks ago. Holcomb co-authored a Democratic alternative that incorporated the public charter schools definition and state dollars only guarantees. Wednesday he spoke in favor of the revised resolution.
“I understand many will vote against this on principle. I very much respect that,” Holcomb said. “As the parent of a public school student I want to make sure the public schools are not harmed or defunded because of this resolution. I feel comfortable that will not occur.
“It is right to want to keep control of local schools in the hands of locally elected school boards. Historically that has been our practice in Georgia,” Holcomb added. “But it is also right to want energized and motivated people to get involved in making our schools much more than satisfying the constitutional standard of an adequate public education.”
Supporters were thrilled but cautious afterward. “Now on to the Senate,” said Virginia Galloway, state director for the Americans for Prosperity Georgia chapter which supported HR 1162 passage. “We really appreciate the bipartisan support that it took to get this bill passed.”
The Georgia School Boards Association, Georgia School Superintendents Association, and the Georgia PTA oppose the charter schools constitutional amendment. Roberts at the Charter Schools Association said the Senate Democratic caucus opposes the amendment. Two-thirds approval by the full Senate would put the constitutional amendment onto the November ballot.
The Foundation’s Criminal Justice Initiative pushed the problems to the forefront, proposed practical solutions, brought in leaders from other states to share examples, and created this nonpartisan opportunity. (At the signing of the 2012 Criminal Justice Reform bill.)