HR 1162: Entrenched Thinking Won Out Over Enlightenment

Mike Klein, GPPF Forum Editor

Two weeks ago hope and change seemed possible.  Two thousand students, parents and start-up charter school supporters gathered on a sunny winter morning outside the State Capitol to rally on behalf of the principle that equal opportunity begins in school.  Now we know that too few inside the great stone building cared to hear their message.  Entrenched thinking has won out over enlightenment.

On Wednesday the state House rejected HR 1162 which sought to place a constitutional amendment question on the November ballot that would 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?”  The measure fell ten votes short of the 120 two-thirds majority it needed.

Georgia is precariously close to earning a reputation – if it has not already solidified that onerous reputation – as a state that prefers education entitlement to innovation.

The establishment of charter schools – as one vehicle to improve education everywhere, for all kids –was forcefully championed by former President Bill Clinton.  During the eight years of the Clinton administration charters grew from literally just a handful to thousands nationwide.  And whatever else you may think about President Barack Obama, his administration has been an equally forceful supporter and advocate for charter schools.

Georgia has 1.65 million public school students.  Fewer than 30,000 attend start-up charter schools.  Fewer than 4 percent attend any charter school.  Whatever threat charter schools pose to traditional public education, it is hard to imagine that their success would topple the existing business.

And isn’t that what this is really all about, the business model of public education?   Public education spending — K-12 and higher education — accounts for more than half of the state’s $18.6 billion budget.  Local property tax dollars add billions more dollars to public education spending.   Money = control.  Control = power.  Nobody in power willingly cedes power.  It is a rule of politics and war:  Never cede power or surrender territory.

Therefore, we have wealthy public school districts, whose superintendents earn hundreds of thousands of dollars per year, arguing that the establishment of a few start-up charter schools constitutes a threat to the financial monopoly that controls public education.  The monopoly is a partnership of convenience between school boards, teacher organizations and politicians.

At least temporarily, they have won.  What now?  One of the bill sponsors moved to vote again, so that means the House will have at least one more chance to reverse course.

Start-up charter school supporters, thousands of families, Governor Nathan Deal’s office and others with a dog in this fight have worked on the constitutional amendment strategy since last May when the Georgia Supreme Court overturned the state charter schools commission.  Now they have only whatever time remains in the current General Assembly, probably two months, to address this problem.

The 2008 Legislature was correct when it created the state charter schools commission as an alternate authorizer after local school boards reject charter school applications.  The Supreme Court was wrong.  And the 2012 Legislature, to date, is wrong to reject the constitutional amendment option that would enable voters to decide the question.

(Update:  Thursday morning the House voted 114 – 49 to reconsider which means the resolution could come back before the House for a second vote.)