Opinion Columns & Blogs

Ferguson: Charter schools and weasel-wording

Aside from the presidential contest (which is kind of a moot point for us since Romney is virtually assured of getting all of Georgia’s electoral votes) the hottest topic in our state this election season seems to be the proposed amendment to our state’s constitution which would allow it to establish charter schools.

I am almost always irritated with how these amendments are worded as they never seem to adequately explain what they are really about, and this charter school amendment is one of the most egregious examples of that problem I’ve seen. This is how it will be worded on your ballot:

“Shall the Constitution of Georgia be amended to allow state or local approval of public charter schools upon the request of local communities?”

If all you knew about this amendment was what will be written on your ballot, you’d most likely vote for it without much reservation. Given the poor performance of so many of our public schools, why not give the state the right to experiment with innovative ideas in charter schools?

But if you’ve been paying any attention to what’s been going on behind the scenes with this amendment, you know there’s a lot more to the story. Local school boards have long had the right to establish charter schools in their districts, and they will still be able to do that whether this initiative passes or not.

The reason this amendment will appear on your ballot is that certain parties in our state government want to establish a new state agency to contract with private companies to place charter schools where they see fit. They tried to establish such an agency already and the state Supreme Court slapped their wrist, ruling that it was the business of local school boards, and not the state, to establish these schools.

The state government bigwigs didn’t like that, so they are trying to change the constitution so they can get back into the charter school business.

So what it comes down to is whether you think the state should create a separate agency and spend a significant chunk of your tax dollars to create charter schools wherever they decide they ought to be or if you think the power to establish such schools should remain under local control.

I’ll be voting no on this amendment, because I’m a strong believer in a division of responsibility when it comes to federal, state and local governments. I think the state and federal governments do more harm than good when they stick their noses into education, and the money they end up spending often does little or no good when the real world benefits are weighed against the costs they incur.

What’s more, the state-level charter school initiative seems to be more about money and power than it is about educating our children. A great deal of cash has flowed into this campaign from out-of-state companies who want to get their hands into Georgia taxpayers’ pockets should this amendment pass.

The financial incentives for them are clear, but the incentive for Georgia taxpayers is much less so. I have not heard any reasonable arguments that suggest that a state-established charter school is likely to be more effective than a locally-established one.

Absent a reasonable argument that this is really an improvement over the current situation, I’m not inclined to approve the creation of an unelected board to spend an undefined amount of our tax money to place schools where they decide they should go.

I also believe the state could (and should be required to) do a much better job in describing what amendments like these are really changing in our state constitution than they are doing now. I believe the wording of this amendment is deceptive, and I’m afraid that may be intentional. That’s the thing that bothers me most of all, and it’s not exactly promoting trust between the people and their government.

Bill Ferguson is a resident of Centerville. Readers can write him at fergcolumn@hotmail.com or visit his blog at nscsense.blogspot.com.