If approved by voters on Nov. 6, Amendment I will change the constitution to allow the state to grant charters to schools begun by parents.
Scott Cowart, superintendent of Carroll County Schools, opposes the amendment, saying a new bureaucracy should not be set up when a similar one is already in place.
“There is a mechanism right now where denied applicants can appeal to the state board,” Cowart said. “Why create a new bureaucracy and separate mechanism? It would be something if we didn’t already have a mechanism in place or charter schools all over the state, with more in the hopper right now.”
Cowart’s counterpart in the city school system, Dr. Kent Edwards, agrees, saying he is not against charter schools “at all,” but is afraid the amendment will create detrimental opportunities for students.
“I don’t understand how it fits into anything with our local systems,” Edwards said. “Atlanta schools have their problems, but why should our local tax dollars go to them?”
A former Carrollton City Schools superintendent, Tom Upchurch, chairs Vote Smart Georgia, a coalition of educational associations that oppose the amendment.
Upchurch, who served as an educational adviser to Zell Miller and Roy Barnes during their gubernatorial administrations, called the amendment a “state power grab.”
“Once you give up that local control, it’s gone,” he said. “It’s all about local control.”
Upchurch, who is chairing the coalition voluntarily and is not being paid, said he appreciates knowing the local board members who levy his taxes, instead of leaving it up to “eight bureaucrats in Atlanta” he’s never met.
“Take for example, the Bowdon school board member, Bart Cater,” Upchurch said. “I know him. I can talk to him on the phone. I know where he lives. He is on the board that levies my taxes that is accountable for the education of children in Carroll County. And only 37 percent of the money that comes in statewide comes from the state. So if the local system is providing the majority of the money, I like the idea of having someone I can vote for who levies my taxes. That’s the issue.”
Cowart and Edwards also have concerns about the lack of local control, an issue that’s been debated by both sides recently.
“What if they decided to create a commission to decide where fire stations should be built in Carroll County?” Cowart said. “What if there were eight bureaucrats in Atlanta who said, ‘This is where the next fire station is going to go.’ That’s essentially what’s happening if this passes.”
Edwards said local control was one of the “founding principles” that has allowed his system to be successful.
“We want to secure our local funding,” Edwards said. “We are not against charter schools at all. In fact, if you look at a strict definition of charter schools, Carrollton City Schools probably qualify as charter schools because of our customized learning. We oppose [the amendment] because there is already an existing structure to handle applications that are turned away.”
Proponents of the amendment have used parents’ rights to choose the best school for their children as a reason for supporting the amendment. Cowart said the idea of the amendment being about choice “just doesn’t fly.”
“Carroll County is the poster child for choice,” he said. “You’ve got Carrollton city, Carroll County, Bremen city, Oak Mountain Academy, Holy Ground, North Point and a huge home-school population. This doesn’t help Carroll County, and we’ve got to think about the kids in Carroll County. If we aren’t providing them with good opportunities, then that’s a different thing. But we’ve had healthy choices in our county, and it’s still a healthy environment.”
Funding of the charter schools is also a reason for Cowart’s opposition.
“This is a simplistic way of seeing it, but my grandmother taught me about pies,” he said. “If these state charter schools go through, then the shrinking state pie for public education is going to be divided even more. So there’s a reduction in funds for traditional public schools to pay for this parallel set of schools.”
Cowart said he opposes funding from for-profit educational associations (some of which that are out of state) that donate money to set up the charter schools.
“The students in those schools get two-and-a-half times the funding from the state,” Cowart said. “The reason they get that is because charter schools don’t get any money from local taxes, but where does state money come from? State dollars are only local dollars that we send them. They’re just dividing it and giving that charter school student more money, which means there’s less money for a fifth grader sitting in one of my district’s schools.”
A recent poll done by Sand Mountain Communications, a Georgia-based political firm, released earlier this month reports that half of Georgia voters surveyed support the amendment. About a quarter of voters are undecided, with the remaining quarter opposed to the amendment.
The poll reached 1,331 registered voters, with a margin of error of 3 percent.
Gov. Nathan Deal has come out in favor of the amendment, saying it provides parents a choice besides sending their children to a struggling school. State Superintendent Dr. John Barge disagrees and opposes the amendment, warning that it would draw needed funds from traditional schools at a time when they face reduced budgets.
The amendment question is on the November ballot because the Georgia Supreme Court ruled unconstitutional a law that had created an appointed commission at the state level to grant operating charters to parents rejected by their local school boards.
“Kent and I feel like we have a moral obligation as the chief officers of education in Carroll County to oppose this,” Cowart said. “It’s almost an ethical thing for us. Our biggest fear is, if this passes, there’s no mechanism to correct it.”