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Charter school item aired during forum
November ballot has referendum on issue
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Forsyth County News

In November, Georgia’s voters can choose more than who they want in the White House for the next four years.

The ballot will also include a question asking if they would like to see the legislature amend Georgia’s constitution so the state can approve and provide funding for charter schools.

A small forum on the topic was held Thursday night at the Forsyth County Administration Building.

Organized by the Forsyth County Democratic Party, Thursday’s gathering included two guest speakers, who both encouraged a vote against the amendment.

Angela Palm, head of policy and legislative services for the Georgia School Board Association, said there was much confusion over the issue. For example, voters aren’t approving or opposing an amendment, they’re saying “yes” or “no” to allowing the state legislature to create an amendment.

“The ballot question is just asking if you want to agree to the change that they are proposing,” she said. “This is a mess, and it’s a confusing mess.”

At least for state Democrats, the current system appears to be the preference, based on a nonbinding ballot question in the July 31 primary.

More than 56 percent of Democrats statewide said they would not support the amendment. In Forsyth County, that figure was about 57 percent against. The Republican ballot did not include the question.

The other speaker Thursday, Forsyth County Board of Education member Ann Crow, offered a more local position to the question when she addressed the crowd of about a dozen.

She highlighted the local charter school the county system runs and talked about why the school board voted against two charter applications from outside the district.

The companies applying had some issues, according to Crow, and were not offering any services the school system didn’t.

“There are no bad schools in our county,” she said. “We would be very apprehensive if a charter school company came and was approved to have a school in our county. Taxpayers would have less control over this decision making.”

According to Crow, a state-approved charter school process “creates a dual school system which will decrease state funding available for local public schools.”

The issue follows a state Supreme Court decision last year that deemed it unconstitutional for the Georgia Charter Schools Commission, formed in late 2008, to approve and fund charter schools. The constitutional amendment would make the process legal.

Palm said the term charter school by itself is a confusing point for some voters, who may think it refers to a private school.

However, a charter school is a public school that operates under a contract with the school board or authority giving permission for the charter.

Because it’s public, charter schools receive state funding for each student who transfers in from a traditional public school. That money is taken away from what the public school system receives for that student.

According to Palm, because a charter is not a traditional school, it’s not bound to the same state mandates. Among other factors, charter officials can determine enrollment, class size and where to pull students from.  

Charter schools can also base acceptance on factors such as parental involvement requirements and public service initiatives.

A traditional school, Palmer said, must “take whoever comes through the door and finds a place for them.”

Supporters of a state charter school commission note that such schools give options to parents. Not every system in the state is high achieving. A charter could offer an alternative for parents without having to pay private school tuition.

Currently the state has more than 100 charter schools, along with three charter school districts.

Crow noted there is nothing wrong with charter schools. Many do, in fact, fill gaps not met by public school systems, including special needs populations.

However, she said the state shouldn’t have say over what a local district needs. Charters “just need to be locally approved.”

Palm said the amendment would just be one more hit against already financially struggling school systems.

“After three years of the state cutting everything [from the budget] that it could find in order to make it through this recession, why would we want to give the state the authority to create another agency,” she asked. “I don’t see any reason to it and I hope you don’t either.”