Charter Opponents Overplayed a Bad Hand and Lost Big

November 7th, 2012 by 1 Comment

By Mike Klein

Truthfully, the public charter schools constitutional amendment that Georgia voters approved Tuesday was a modest proposal that sends a message voters in the state will insist on public schools innovation, even small innovation which is where the state is with charter schools.

Mike Klein, Editor, Georgia Public Policy Foundation

The big stuff like linking teacher salaries to student academic performance and eliminating teacher tenure was voted on in other states.  We are not ready for those votes in Georgia.

Perception is a significant percentage of reality.  Imagine the national perception that would have been created if Georgia became the first state to vote against a constitutional amendment that sought to expand public charter school options for parents.

The amendment prevailed with 58 percent and a margin of some 625,000 votes.  It handily won all the major population counties surrounding Atlanta and it carried Gwinnett County by 75,000 votes.  The Gwinnett school board was the leading opponent and significantly financed a costly lawsuit that overturned the previous state charter school commission.

How did this victory happen?  There is no single answer; there are many.  Proponents made their argument that parental choice for children should be paramount.  Opponents also built a case around children but in their scenario children left behind in traditional schools would see their futures compromised by for-profit education companies that were taking the money.

Both sides emphasized local control.  Proponents contended parental choice was the ultimate local control.  Opponents counter-punched that the state Supreme Court granted exclusive control to local school boards, even though that language is nowhere in the state constitution.

Opponents took aim at a state commission that would consider petitions after they were denied by local boards.  Its members were portrayed as unaccountable.  Proponents overcame the perception that the commission would become a multi-headed monster.  Proponents argued and they were right that the commission would be a legitimate appellate process.

Opponents failed to sell their financial model argument with the voters.  Last spring opponents in the General Assembly insisted no local property tax dollars should be allowed to fund new state-approved charter schools.  They insisted that local property tax dollars should not follow students to a state charter school; those dollars should remain with the traditional school district.

Legislation that created the public charters schools constitutional amendment had no chance to pass without that compromise, so it happened.  Proponents then worked out a formula in which new state-approved charters would receive slightly more per pupil state support than traditional public schools.  Slightly was the key word; it was a bit more, not a lot, just a bit and if those new charter schools were a district, they would be the third lowest funded school district in Georgia.

Opponents thought they saw the opening for a new strategy.  Now they argued it was unfair that state-approved public charter schools would receive more per pupil funding than traditional public schools.  Proponents built their position around an explanation about the relationship between local property tax dollars and per pupil state funding.  Apparently that worked.

Opponents introduced so many numbers into the conversation that it became nearly impossible for any regular person to sort them out.  They argued that new state-approved public charter schools were a threat that could cost tens or hundreds of millions of dollars, take your pick.  That argument also did not stick with voters.

Opponents continuously argued state budget cuts over several years forced local districts to furlough teachers and trim school days from the calendar.  State budget cuts at any dollar level do not automatically require schools to adjust their calendars.  There are some formulas in play – too complex to describe here – but suffice it to say, local boards control school calendars.

Opponents pointed to the number of school systems that converted to charter status as proof that local boards will create charters.  But they stopped short of explaining that when public school systems convert to charter status they immediately become eligible for additional state financial aid that can be millions of dollars per district.  This argument also fell short.

Opponents won the media war.  Most media bought the opposition argument that the charter schools amendment would expand state government, create a dual or second state school system and cause a very costly duplication of state services at a time when schools were being asked to suffer from reduced funding.  Most voters did not agree with most media.

Ultimately, opponents decided their best path was to portray themselves as victims.  They pushed a strategy that local public schools were being compromised but proponents prevailed with a strategy that parental choice was the ultimate local control.  At the end opponents said state-approved charters would re-segregate Georgia schools.  That was a low point in the dialogue.  Minority families have clearly benefited from charter schools.

Truthfully, there is no national debate about the future of public charter schools.  Twenty years ago there was not even one anywhere in the United States.  Today there are more than 5,600.  That conversation is over.  The President of the United States, both major political parties and many education innovators are firmly in the corner of expanded public charter school options.

Truthfully, Georgia is still in the early days of fashioning its public charter schools strategy.  Incidentally, while you are reading this another 52 students will decide to drop out of Georgia public schools, as 19,250 do each year.  There is no intent here to suggest charters could save them all, but something needs to save them and time has been running out for a very long time.

One thought on “Charter Opponents Overplayed a Bad Hand and Lost Big

  1. Georgia’s Charter Amendment Passed, When will the Lawsuits begin?

    I am concerned about education funding?

    House Resolution 1162 (The Charter Amendment) starting on line 48 reads:
    “The state is authorized to expend state funds for the support and maintenance of special schools in such amount and manner as may be provided by law; provided, however, no deduction shall be made to any state funding which a local school system is otherwise authorized to receive pursuant to general law as a direct result or consequence of the enrollment in a state charter school of a specific student or students who reside within the geographic boundaries of the local school system.”

    The general premise; State-Government will fund Public Charter Schools, and that funding will not reduce funding to a local school system, as a direct result or consequence of the enrollment in a state charter school, of a specific student or students residing within the geographic boundaries of the school system.

    Nonetheless, what if public and/or charter schools are underfunded:

    Will School Systems sue when pursuant to general law they are underfunded?

    Will Public Charter Schools sue if underfunded as may be provided by law?

    Will Charter Schools sue State and local School Systems, because unequal funding is not equal?

    Think, Brown v. Board of Education, 347 U.S. 483 (1954), a decision where “Separate but equal was not equal,” ending Segregation. Is there a legal argument to be made, that unequal funding for a specific student or students residing within the geographic boundaries of the local school system be inherently unequal?

    We are a litigious culture on many levels, and comments submitted blogs and Facebook provide evidence of one definition, inclined to quarrel or argue.

    We should be concerned about underfunding in the future, look at our history, $4.4 billion in austerity cuts to schools since 2008, and $1,143,726,796 this year.

    How is underfunding accomplished?

    The Quality Basic Education (QBE) Act of 1985 established our current funding formula, and the “DOE Internal Control Review of the Quality Basic Education (QBE) Funding Formula” report published May 20, 2010, stated the only change made to the, base unit cost of educating one student since 1985, was after fiscal year (FY) 2004. This was for personnel cost components (e.g. salary and benefit categories), and media materials. Teacher salary and benefits used for the calculated cost of the base-unit, is for an entry-level high school teacher with a bachelor’s degree and no experience.

    The QBE Funding Formula is, “Base-Earnings calculation, plus Training and Experience (T&E) Adjustment, plus the Central Administration Personnel Adjustment.”

    The “Base-Earnings” calculation which will be used as an example of how underfunding is accomplished is, “Full Time Enrollment (FTE) projection, times ‘Base,’ times Program Weights.”

    The ‘Base,’ is the calculated cost to teach one FTE high school student for one year, and the least expensive program-of-instruction. Georgia has 19 including the High School Program. Weight/multipliers for all programs were calculated in 1985.

    Using FY 2008 data as an example:

    Kindergarten FTE in October of 2008 was 129,336 students, the Base was $2,642.32, and the Kindergarten Program multiplier is 1.6587.

    129,336 x $2,642.32 x 1.6587 = $566,855,914.00

    However, austerity cuts reduced the Kindergarten Program multiplier to 1.6556.

    129,336 x $2,642.32 x 1.6556 = $565,796,498.00

    A $1,059,416 reduction in funding for Kindergarten Students, additional reductions were made to 16 more, of the 19 instructional programs for students. Austerity Cuts for FY 2008 totaled $142,959,810.

    Information released by Georgia Schools Superintendent John Barge, listed austerity cuts over the last eleven years, FY 2003 through FY 2013, for a total of 6 trillion, 621 million, 912 thousand, and 468 dollars.

    Considering current and past practices, we should be concerned not just about Charter School funding, but all school funding, and the possible legal ramifications of underfunding.

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