By Mike Klein
We have a choice this fall: Do we want to be nationally recognized as innovators who push the learning envelope or, will Georgia become the first state in the country whose voters reject a constitutional amendment that would guarantee public school options for families?
Last week’s Georgia Public Policy Foundation commentary by Benita Dodd provides terrific context to positions on both sides of the proposed constitutional amendment question that will ask voters, “Shall the Constitution of Georgia be amended to allow state or local approval of public charter schools upon the request of local communities?”
No generation holds a copyright on learning innovation. We cannot predict how innovation tomorrow will advance learning to better levels of accessibility and performance. But history suggests that innovation tomorrow will never come if innovation today is crushed for whatever reason.
The nationally recognized pioneer of public charter school law is touring Georgia this week to address audiences in four cities, including Thursday in Atlanta when Ember Reichgott Junge speaks to the Georgia Charter Schools Association conference at the World Congress Center.
Junge is the former Democratic state senator from Minnesota who is widely recognized as the principle author of the nation’s first independent public charter school law. Her new book “Zero Chance of Passage” details the fight to pass the law in Minnesota. Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government honored Junge with its Innovations in American Government Award for her independent public charter school leadership.
“It was a bipartisan initiative and it was championed by Democratic lawmakers who are union – endorsed like me,” says Junge. “It actually came from the middle of the political spectrum. Many people think it came from the right or it came from the left but it came from the middle and, you know, I don’t think chartering would pass in the political climate of today because there isn’t much middle left in elected office today.”
Those on both sides of the proposed constitutional amendment are firmly entrenched. For those who are not yet decided, here are just a few details worth consideration, as reported by the state Department of Education and compiled by the Georgia Charter Schools Association.
This past school year (specifically, in March 2012) the state had 133,000 students enrolled in all public charter schools. That was a tiny 7.9 percent of total statewide public school enrollment. About two-thirds – some 100,000 – attended local board of education conversion schools. Fewer than 28,300 attended independent start-up public charter schools.
Fewer than 2,000 learners — about one-eighth of 1 percent of all public school students — attended start-up charters that were created by local boards of education. There are just seven public charter schools in the entire state that were created by local boards of education.
Here are three more numbers — 9 – 150 – 9 — that you should know about: Nine is the number of Georgia counties that have an independent start-up public charter school. One hundred fifty is the number of Georgia counties that do not have one. Nine is the number of independent start-up public charter schools approved by local boards since 2009.
The bottom line: local boards simply have no defensible track record that suggests they want to encourage new public charter schools – whether they run them or anyone else runs them.
Recognized leaders in public charter education are watching to see how Georgia votes. That includes Rick Ogston, founder of the acclaimed Carpe Diem Schools in Arizona. This fall he opened new Carpe Diem schools in Indiana, after a specific invite from Governor Mitch Daniels.
“I personally would never go to a state in which I had to subject myself to district authorization. It is not a pretty picture,” Ogston said at last month’s third annual Georgia Legislative Policy Forum. “Districts have a conflict of interest. They may authorize you because the state says or the community says they want it, but they really don’t want you there.”
Washington is the only other state that will vote on an independent public charter school ballot question this year. Previous efforts to pass the bill failed in 1996, 2000 and 2004.
This will be the first opportunity for Georgia voters – not legislators, not local boards, not the Supreme Court — to decide whether parents should have an option to select public schools they prefer for their children. It is also the first time any state tried this by constitutional amendment.
National media largely ignored this year’s state transportation referendum but you can bet this result will be much more widely reported. Georgia will be seen either as a leader or a laggard.
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.)