Staff Photo: John Bohn Gwinnett County Public School Superintendent J. Alvin Wilbanks talks with Board of Education member Louise Radloff while closely watching election results with opponents of the charter amendment gathered at the Gwinnett School District Instructional Support Center in Suwanee Tuesday evening.
LAWRENCEVILLE -- On Tuesday night, Georgia's voters settled a heated dispute over the state's power to charter independent public schools. It was a decision echoed by a majority of Gwinnett County voters as well.
As of press time, about 58 percent or 2,081,274 of the state's registered voters said "yes" to a referendum commonly called the "charter amendment," which seeks to create an appointed commission at the Capitol. In Gwinnett, 145,376 or about 63 percent voted yes.
Those who said "no" to the amendment in Georgia numbered 1,489,244 or about 42 percent of the vote as of press time. In Gwinnett, about 37 percent or 84,988 opposed it as of press time.
Among the opposition was Superintendent J. Alvin Wilbanks, who said Tuesday that the "intentionally misleading ballot language, the massive amounts of money that poured in from out of state companies to promote the amendment and the brazen attempts to silence the opposing voices were too much for our significantly less-well-funded grass roots campaign to overcome."
Nina Gilbert, a proponent of the "yes" vote, talked with excitement about the results.
"In the words of statesman Frederick Douglass 'If there is no struggle, there is no progress,'" Gilbert said. "We have been in the trenches fighting for the right for parents to choose their children's schools for more than five years," Gilbert said. "I am so glad that the end of this fight is near and rests in the hands with the people of Georgia."
Added Gilbert: "Our goal in the charter community has been and always will be to put children first and work to close the achievement gap. We do this by giving parents the option to choose schools with innovative programs, small class sizes and teachers who have the autonomy to make sure students learn at high levels. We offer alternatives for students assigned to low performing schools and students who want a new environment that challenges them. We have done our very best to serve our scholars, engage our parents and meet every requirement mandated by law."
Proponents like Gilbert have said the process in place prior to Tuesday's election allowed local school boards and the state department of education to keep a majority of charter applications from moving forward.
The former process allowed for an applicant to seek charter status with their local school board, and if denied, get guidance from the state department of education.
The new process will place a charter commission at the Capitol: a board that proponents of the "yes" vote feel will underscore the state's power to grant applications. It also will replace the state board of education as the alternate authorizer.
It's been a sore point for many members of local education boards, and despite legal threats they have refused to keep quiet, including Wilbanks.
"Even though tonight's outcome is not what we had hoped for regarding Amendment One, the focus on education has been extraordinary," Wilbanks said. "We now hope that the energy and effort this campaign has generated will be applied where it matters most: advocating for restoring full funding for Georgia's public schools so all our children can have a quality education.
Some recently sought to stop Wilbanks and elected officials with the local board of education from allegedly campaigning against the amendment on the taxpayer's dime prior to Tuesday's election.
A lawsuit filed Oct. 8 against local school officials was tossed out about a week ago by a Gwinnett County Superior Court Judge.
Legal battles aside, Christopher Kunney, board member of an independent charter school in Norcross, said the statewide support for the charter school amendment will open the door for partnership between state charters and traditional public schools.
"The people of Georgia have spoken in favor of school choice," Kunney said. "I am hoping that we can take the momentum of this win and continue to find ways to innovate our public school system in this state."