State Rep. Ed Setzler’s main argument Tuesday night in favor of the proposed charter school amendment was choice—allowing parents to pull their children out of failing traditional public schools to attend charter ones.
“Southwest Atlanta, rural Georgia—is there any school in the state that you wouldn’t want to send your kid to?” he asked the dozen-plus forum attendees at Hillgrove High School. “If there is any school you wouldn’t want to send your kid to, you’ve got to support choice.”
But the forum’s other two panelist—West Cobb school board member Alison Bartlett and Karen Hallacy, the legislative chair of Georgia’s PTA—voiced their unyielding opposition to the amendment, with Bartlett calling charter school agencies “for-profit groups under the guise of choice trying to make money off our schools.”
Hallacy added that the agencies “would really like to get in here and get their hands on (state money). So there is a profit incentive to lobby, to support legislators who will encourage this kind of legislation.”
Both said they were in favor of charter schools as long as the power for approval is given to city and county school boards.
Georgia voters will have the final say when they head to the Nov. 6 general election polls. If passed, the amendment will change the state Constitution to allow the reformation of the seven-member Georgia Charter Schools Commission, which was created in 2008 but struck down by the state Supreme Court in 2011.
In that time, the commission approved 16 charter schools across the state, which, Setzler said, are in “legal limbo” until the outcome of the amendment vote.
“If this ballot question goes down,” he said, “those schools are going to go away.”
Commission members—appointed by the governor, lieutenant governor and House speaker—would have the power to overturn local school boards after they oppose a charter application. The Supreme Court voted against the commission in an effort to keep such matters local, prevent competition against school boards, and avoid duplicating efforts.
“If a school board turns down a solid charter organization, there is a process that this commission of appointees could review this upon appeal and say, ‘Yes, this is a solid organization. We think this charter school should be allowed to come into existence,’” said Setzler, who represents Northwest Cobb.
But Bartlett questioned how the seven members would be held accountable outside the three state officials who put them in power.
“Since they’re not elected officials but they’re appointed, that would mean those three people are who they’re accountable to and no one else,” she said.
Hallacy said: “There’s no requirement that this seven-person appointed commission would have any need or responsibility to reach out into the community and have that dialog to understand what the community’s real wishes are.”
But unlike failing public schools, Setzler said, charter schools can be shut down if they don’t meet a five-year performance contract. “If they don’t perform, they don’t educate kids, they go away.”
Charter successes in Georgia, though, have led to long waiting lists at those schools, Setzler said. If the schools run by Florida-based Charter School USA were combined, they’d be the No. 1 school district in the country, he said.
“I think it’s an absolute moral imperative for us to give single moms and parents without means options for choice,” he said.
Bartlett and Hallacy argued that choice already exists: Recent legislation allows students to put in for transfer if seats at another school in the district are available. Almost 1,000 in Cobb chose that option last year, Bartlett said.
She also pointed to state money being used for charter schools while education funding is already hurting. Currently, the state allocates $7,400 per charter student but only $3,600 per Cobb student and under $3,000 per Fulton County student, she said.
Also, Bartlett said, charter schools don’t transport their students to and from school, don’t have to hire certified teachers, and aren’t required to follow regulations when it comes to special needs students.
“We have two students that are costing us each $500,000 a year to educate because federal law says we have to,” she said. “I believe that every student deserves the right to be educated, and that’s the state and federal laws. However, charter school don’t have to do that. … They basically don’t have to meet the same requirements that the Cobb County School District does.”
Setzler said not forming the charter commission basically gives local school boards a monopoly on charter school creation, in spite of wishes of parents and community members. He compared it to a county commission chairman owning restaurants and not allowing competition like Wendy’s or Burger King to move in.
“The person who has control of the system has a vested interest in preventing competition,” he said. “That’s what we have today in public schools: The people that run all the schools have no interest in their being competition in the system.”
After introductions, much of Tuesday’s discussion originated from questions submitted via notecard from the audience. The moderator was Kerwin Swint, an author and professor of politics at Kennesaw State University.
Also at the forum, Bartlett, a Democrat wrapping up her first term as the Post 7 board member, mentioned that she is up for re-election Nov. 6. Her opponent is retired teacher and coach Brad Wheeler, a Republican.