In my continuing struggle to understand Amendment 1, which would reinstate the Georgia Charter Schools Commission, I’ve switched from Thomas Jefferson to HB 797, the enabling legislation for the Commission which will become effective only if the amendment passes.
All of HB 797 makes for interesting reading, but two of its features in particular caught my attention. One of them caught a lot of other people’s attention, too. The other one, not so much.
Section 20-2-2084 seems to be a flash point for both amendment supporters and opponents. It describes the types of petitions the Commission has the authority to act on. There are two: petitions for charter schools with a statewide attendance zone and petitions for charter schools with defined attendance zones. I’ll abbreviate “statewide attendance zone” as SAZ and “defined attendance zone” as DAZ.
I’m not an expert on statutory interpretation, but I don’t think you have to be to see that once we strip this part of the law of the hyperbole that both Amendment 1’s fans and detractors have freighted it with, there really isn’t much daylight between the current situation regarding charter schools and the situation that’ll be obtained if the amendment is approved. Other people, including State School Superintendent John Barge, have made a similar point. But, as far as I know, nobody has done it on the basis of the argument that follows.
Let’s start by disposing of petitions for DAZ charters. Those petitions go first to the local school board and don’t even reach the Commission unless they’re rejected at the local level. As Mr. Barge has pointed out repeatedly, that’s essentially the procedure in place now, under which petitioners unsuccessful at the local level may appeal to the State Board of Education.
Amendment 1 proponents may think HB 797 frees them from review by the State Board of Education, but they’re wrong. The bill puts the Commission “under the authority of the State Board of Education” and gives a majority of the Board the power to overrule Commission decisions within sixty days.
It’s the procedure governing petitions for SAZ charters that’s generating the heat. For those petitions, the law provides that petitioners submit their proposal, for information purposes only, to the school board where the proposed school is to be located. But the petitions will be acted on directly by the Commission, without review at the local level.
There are two ways to understand this procedure.
Either a proposed charter school is classified as an SAZ school, and benefits from expedited review, on nothing more than the petitioners’ say-so that it has a statewide attendance zone.
Or in order to qualify as an SAZ school, petitioners must demonstrate the intent and capacity to enroll students from anywhere in the state. That isn’t a matter of their mere say-so but of resources and facilities.
In discussions I’ve eavesdropped on, people on both sides of the issue seem to have seized on the first of these interpretations as the correct one, amendment proponents believing that the SAZ procedure so understood will vastly enlarge the charter school footprint in the state, and amendment opponents believing it’ll fatally dilute local control.
I believe both are wrong because the permissive interpretation makes hash of this section of the law. If the law makes the expedited review process available to anybody just on their say-so that what they’re proposing is an SAZ school, then the distinction between SAZ and DAZ schools collapses and there’s no reason for a separate procedure covering DAZ proposals. If the expedited procedure is in effect available to anybody, nobody would risk a local board’s denial of a DAZ school petition if they can circumvent local boards altogether by the simple expedient of slapping an SAZ sticker on their package.
But if in order to qualify for expedited review as SAZ schools, petitioners must actually demonstrate the ability, through the necessary resources and facilities, to enroll students from all over the state, these petitions are likely to be very rare. The only example of an SAZ school HB 797 gives is virtual schools, in which all the instruction is on line. Apart from that, the only example I can think of is boarding schools, such ambitious undertakings that, while the law allows for them just to cover all bases, it’s hard to imagine that petitions for them will be the standard case.
If I have this right, then Amendment 1 doesn’t promise a huge boost in charter schools over and above what’s possible now. As a practical matter, all it would do is what State Superintendent Barge has been saying—duplicate the procedure already in place, which provides for charter petition review by local boards with appeal to a state body when petitions are rejected at the local level.
More disturbing to me is the way HB 797 endorses a diminished idea of what public schools are.
The legislation devotes exactly one sentence to affirming that state charter schools are public schools. To me, public primary and secondary schools are ones funded entirely by tax revenue. But in spite of the elaborate funding formula it spells out, the legislation doesn’t envision public funding as the sole source of support for charters. The Commission’s duties under this law would include directing “state charter schools and persons seeking to establish state charter schools to sources of private funding and support….”
And the Commission would have the power under HB 797 to “preliminarily approve a petition for a state charter school before the petitioner has secured space, equipment, or personnel, if the petitioner indicates such preliminary approval is necessary for it to raise working capital.” Obviously, we’re not talking about bake sales and car washes here. Charter school petitioners should expect to resort to capital markets, private foundations and other such sources to get up and running.
This is troubling because, however appropriate the public-private funding mix is at the post-secondary level, adopting it for primary and secondary schools encourages us to think of them as providing merely private benefits instead of an indivisible public good accruing to every single one of us, whether or not we have children in the schools.
That’s a bad thing for reasons I explained in my last Patch outing on this topic. Although mine is the minority position these days, I don’t believe public officials should be encouraging the view that school taxes are really just user fees and urge us to avoid them by relying on private funding sources whose agendas may not include promotion of the indivisible public good that public schools should confer.
All of which is say that there’s no urgent reason to adopt Amendment 1 and, to me anyway, at least one urgent reason to reject it.
Amendment 1 is constitutional litter.