Boiling Down Arguments on the Charter School Amendments

By Kelly McCutchen

Kelly McCutchen, Public Policy Foundation President

The General Assembly is considering two alternative Constitutional Amendments to address the Georgia Supreme Court’s ruling last year regarding the state’s role in public education. The two primary debates emerging from this decision are 1) what should be the state’s role in public education and 2) if charter schools are authorized by the state, how does the state fund these schools?

Shared Authority vs Exclusive Local School Board Control

Both amendments use identical language to establish the state’s role in setting education policy. The clause in both amendments reads: “the General Assembly may by general law provide for the establishment of education policies for such public education.” This gives state and local government a shared constitutional authority over public schools, as opposed to the narrow ruling by the Court giving local school boards “exclusive control” over public education.

The State as an Alternative Authorizer of Charter Schools

The amendment sponsored by Rep. Jan Jones clarifies the state’s “authority to establish special schools” and specifies that “special schools shall include charter schools, as defined and provided for by law; provided, however, that special schools shall only be public schools.” (Although the state may already authorize “special schools,” the Supreme Court interpreted “special schools” so narrowly that charter schools were not deemed to fall under that definition.)

The amendment sponsored by Rep. Scott Holcomb goes even further by specifically giving the state the authority to overturn local school boards when they reject charter school applications. The amendment states “the State Board of Education shall be authorized to overturn a decision by a local board of education regarding the approval or denial of a local charter school.”

Overview: Both sides agree that local school boards should not have “exclusive control” of public education in Georgia. One version gives the state the authority to authorize its own charter schools and one version gives the state the authority to overturn local school board decisions on charter schools. Both amendments would give the state a clear role in setting K-12 education policy, including the ability for the state to authorize charter schools.

Funding of State-Chartered Schools

If there is bipartisan agreement on local control, that leaves funding as the primary issue.

One of the key arguments in last year’s Supreme Court case was that the State Charter Schools Commission’s funding formula was unconstitutional. However, the Supreme Court never addressed funding in its decision.

Under the Georgia Constitution, local property tax dollars levied by a local school board can only be controlled by that school board or by a local referendum. This part of the Constitution has not changed and no one is suggesting that it be changed.

The funding formula developed by the Georgia Charter Schools Commission adjusted state dollars going to a local school system based on the number of students from that system attending a state-chartered special school. The goal was to ensure that the total funding per student in the local system remained the same and that the student attending the state-chartered special school received no more and no less funding than other students in the school system where he or she resides. In other words, students should not be punished or rewarded for choosing to attend another public school. (For more details, see “Was the State Charter Schools Commission’s Funding Formula Fair?”)

(This funding formula only involved operating funding. Georgia school systems spend an average of $1,642 per student each year on facilities. In most cases, Georgia charter schools are receiving no facility funding from local school systems. This means they must fund their facilities out of the public operating money they receive, resulting in less money going into the classroom. So even if charter schools are funded “equally” for operations, they still save school systems money because they fund their own facilities.)

Rep. Jones’ amendment does not make any changes regarding funding of charter schools.

Rep. Holcomb’s amendment adds the following language: “The state is authorized to expend state funds for the support and maintenance of state charter schools in such amount and manner as may be provided by law; provided, however, that nothing contained herein shall be construed to permit the state to adjust the proportion of state funds with respect to the affected local school systems.”

There is no argument that current state QBE funds should follow the child to a new public school – the debate revolves around supplemental funding to this base amount. Currently, if a child chooses to attend a state-chartered special school, the school system where that child lives will have its state QBE funding reduced by an amount equal to one student. The broad language in the Holcomb amendment could be interpreted as prohibiting this adjustment, meaning the state would be paying for a student that was no longer attending a school managed by that school system.

Overview: Both amendments retain the Constitutional prohibition of funding state-chartered schools with local tax funds without the consent of local school boards or a public referendum. Rep. Jones’ amendment gives the state the flexibility to develop a funding formula by statute. Rep. Holcomb’s amendment appears to prevent any adjustment in state funding to local school systems if their students choose to attend a state-chartered school. So under the Holcomb amendment, state-chartered schools would receive much lower funding than other public schools in the state — even lower than charter schools already receive.

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