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Charter school amendment is divisive issue

LAWRENCEVILLE -- Read or watch the news lately? Do the words "charter amendment" ring a bell?

Those paying even casual attention to the media have likely heard the phrase, but its implications aren't often as clear as the voices that laud and decry the merits of the proposed change to Georgia's constitution.

In essence, the amendment aims to underscore the state's authority to charter independent public schools if voters say 'yes' to a ballot question.

As the Nov. 6 elections emerge on the horizon, the matter is making waves. Its divisive nature, which rivals even that of the presidential election, has many of the state's most prominent leaders condemning each other's stances.

High-profile officials have ventured into the verbal war, including Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal and State Superintendent John Barge, who have taken opposite sides. Barge has encouraged voters to say 'no' to the amendment, while Deal has asked state residents to answer the referendum with a resounding 'yes.'

At the local level, J. Alvin Wilbanks, superintendent of Gwinnett County Public Schools, has taken a very vocal vow to do all he can to educate residents on what he said is an "insidious national agenda to privatize, defund and dismantle public education."

Barbed words for an official better known for steering clear of political debate. Why is Wilbanks so fired up?

"I have a duty to really be against anything I think is going to be detrimental to our education system," Wilbanks said.

He added that, much like the governor, he is entitled to his opinion. "I think I have as much right to express my view as Gov. Deal has," Wilbanks said.

Deal brought his pro-amendment talk to Gwinnett County in August, speaking at the local Chamber of Commerce luncheon. He told more than 100 at the gathering that a 'yes' vote would offer better opportunities to all students in Georgia.

The Gwinnett Chamber of Commerce, which had planned a fundraiser just weeks later to oppose the measure, quickly changed its stance to neutral and canceled its event.

Weeks later, Wilbanks used the local Chamber of Commerce luncheon as a venue to come out harder than ever in an official capacity against the ballot question.

As a prop, Wilbanks brought a poster board with the wording of the ballot question. He stepped aside and asked an associate to read the text:

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

Wilbanks stepped back in front of the microphone: "Folks, we can already do that. It happens every day across the state."

If that's the case, then what would the constitutional amendment propose to change about the process of getting a charter school approved?

Bert Brantley is glad to answer the question.

The Process

Brantley is a spokesman for Families for Better Public Schools, the campaign advocating for the amendment.

"What we're talking about is reaffirming the state's ability to serve as an appeals process for charter applicants to have when their local school board does not adequately review their application," Brantley said. "Right now, we have local approval, and that will stay in place, and that's the way we prefer it."

Added Brantley: "But there are those rare cases when they just can't come to an agreement, and there needs to be a good appeals process."

As it stands, those wanting to start a charter school who are blocked by their local school boards can appeal by going to the state department of education.

What the constitutional amendment aims to do is create an appointed commission in Atlanta that Brantley said would serve as a neutral group that can overrule the decisions of local boards when needed.

"It's really about affirming the state's role in being that alternate authorizer," he said. "We would expect the charter schools commission would replace the state board as the alternate authorizer for charters."

Norcross resident Christopher Purvis would take it a step further. He said he feels like "local government isn't doing the job it's supposed to. Maybe it's time for them to step aside and let this state commission try."

Opponents say that creation of the appointed charter commission points to a bigger issue.

"This is about the expansion of state government," said Jane Langley, campaign manager for Vote Smart Georgia. "The amendment would create a group of seven people who would decide how and where schools operate, and this group is going to cost taxpayers more money."

Langley said it would be a "costly duplication of what local agencies and the state department of education already do."

"Local school boards can approve or deny, and if they're denied they can be appealed by the state ... and they're approved by the state when (those attempting to start up a charter school) can demonstrate fiscal responsibility and governance. And those that are denied are the ones that cannot do that."

Defending the idea of an appointed state commission, Brantley said there has been such a group of decision-makers before at the state level, and that they were conscientious.

"You don't hear any criticism of the commission when it was in place," Brantley said. "They took a great deal of time working with the applicants and the schools to make sure they were high-quality schools, and if you look at the achievement of those schools that were approved, they were good."

The defunct Georgia Charter Schools Commission shut down operations in 2011 after the Supreme Court ruled that the existing state constitution already gave local boards control over K-12 education, including issuing independent charters.

A majority of the General Assembly and the governor have since endorsed the amendment in an effort to restore the state commission.

If restored, Langley says the commission could threaten the future of Georgia's students.

The Pupils

Advocates on both sides say they want what's best for the children. But depending on who you ask, the outcome of the Nov. 6 election means either detriment or improvement for the publicly funded system that educates Georgia's young people.

Langley said that those supporting the amendment are out for "corporate profit, rather than seeking to improve public education."

She said that "there are some looking at new charter schools as cash cows. These corporations spending money to get the 'yes' vote are also contributing heavily to state legislators' campaigns."

Wilbanks levels similar allegations.

"There's billions of dollars to be made," Wilbanks said. "Why do you think these EMOs (Educational Management Organizations) are funding the pro-charter stance? They're not doing it just because they like the people of Georgia."

For-profit charter school management organizations such as K12 Inc. and National Heritage Academies have contributed thousands and thousands of dollars toward the campaign for the 'yes' vote, according to campaign disclosures.

The most generous donor to the 'yes' vote effort is Alice Walton, who gave $250,000 to Families for Better Public Schools. She is the daughter of Walmart founder Sam Walton.

Officials with GCPS are among some of the biggest contributors to the 'no' vote, with Wilbanks having donated $5,000 and other administrators contributing a combined $5,300 more to the campaign, according to campaign disclosures.

Langley, the Vote Smart campaign manager, said her group wants the public to "follow the money," meaning campaign contributions as well as funding for operations of new independent charter schools.

"The money that taxpayers pay toward public schools is going to get siphoned off to pay for these new schools if this passes," Langley said. "And this is during a time when public school funds have already been cut drastically ... there is no other way to pay for this than to take money away from public schools."

Brantley says that's not true.

"We're talking about investing more in public education, growing the education pie," Brantley said. "Why should we be against something that pours more money into public education?"

Elaine Cannon of Grayson said she's "not for anything that sounds like more taxes. These are tough times." The 29-year-old mother of two added that "making ends meet is hard enough...what's wrong with the schools we've already got?"

As for allegations that the measure would take dollars away from currently established schools, Brantley said that the governor and legislature "have committed that this is a line item outside of local budgets. It's a supplemental, separate piece that they've committed to taking out of the state budget."

Nina Gilbert, founder of state-chartered school Ivy Prep Academy in Norcross, said that "opponents to the amendment continue to strike fear in people by saying that the charter schools take money away from cash-strapped districts. This makes it real clear where their priorities are."

Added Gilbert: "What good charter schools do is allow students to escape failing schools that they may be sentenced to because of their Zip codes."

Despite the claims, Wilbanks said that public education is doing fine.

"I really do believe that we're doing a better job educating children today than we ever have, period," Wilbanks said.

There are Georgia and Gwinnett residents who strongly disagree, and they feel the superintendent's outspokenness is unethical, at least while he's on the clock.

Stating that officials like Wilbanks have crossed the line in campaigning against the amendment while in their official capacities, two separate groups of residents have filed suit against him and GCPS. A hearing is scheduled for Oct. 24 in Gwinnett Superior Court.

As the plaintiffs seek to stop him from allegedly campaigning on the taxpayer's dime, Wilbanks maintains that, like the governor, he is obligated to urge voters to "consider the future of public education."

Comments

LarryMajor 1 year, 6 months ago

This is an excellent piece, Mr. Reddy. You have not only accurately mined facts from a mountain of propaganda, but also managed to include both sides’ position while avoiding the misinformation that appears almost daily. Thank you.

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kevin 1 year, 6 months ago

Yes, the present system WILL cost students more money, tutors,private schools, etc. This is why voting YES is the best way to get more Charter schools. It is so obvious that the present system is desperate to keep its power & control over students best interest. Time to get the State involved in being the last word in this idea. At present, if the local boards decide we have enough Charter schools, the State or someone else has to pay legal fees to take the local boards to court to overturn their bad decisions. With the State having the final appeals decision, we have a 100% better chance of getting more Charter schools. If they are doing such a better job, what are teachers scared of? Maybe if they are really qualified to teach for 30 years, they could get a job with the Charter school. It is way past time in this country in trying something new that has proven to work. The present system is full of corruption and needs to be eliminated so students can have choices. What is the world is wrong with students having choices? Absolutely NOTHING. It is the big shots (supervisors, managers, board members, appointees,etc) in the present system that are totally against this. Can't the taxpayer see this for themselves? This is why they are going against the law and fighting against this amendment. They want to brain-wash you into thinking you are better off with them in control!!

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LarryMajor 1 year, 6 months ago

The article mentions both sides discussing the existing state appeals process – the one you just claimed doesn’t exit. It’s not like you missed some obscure statement, because the current appeals process has been in effect for thirteen years and was used twice right here in Gwinnett County.

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kevin 1 year, 6 months ago

"Officials with GCPS are among some of the biggest contributors to the 'no' vote, with Wilbanks having donated $5,000 and other administrators contributing a combined $5,300 more to the campaign, according to campaign disclosures." Isn't this illegal? Where is the AG on this matter? Hiding under a table?

"Langley says the commission could threaten the future of Georgia's students." These words are so far form the truth she should keep quiet. Langley and all the rest of the administrators are so desperate to keep their power and control that they are NOT considering the welfare of the students, but themselves. Why are you so against students form having more choices Langley? Students can still go to a Charter school for free!! All of a sudden you are concerned about State spending! What a joke!

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JohninSuwanee 1 year, 6 months ago

I am for the amendment and I agree with others that Wilbanks is overstepping the boundries of the law by using his position as supertendent and GCPS funds to create materials and messaging to campaign against this issue. However, I do not agree that Wilbanks is outside the law contributing his own personal money to campaign against it, as you suggest. The law only covers what he does on the clock and using public funds. It does not cover what he says on his own time or does with his own money. To restrict that would be an infringement of his rights to free speech.

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Gundoctor1 1 year, 6 months ago

well,this should really stir up a hornets nest. Glad I already voted absentee. Whatever position wilbanks supports , I'd be very wary of.

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R 1 year, 6 months ago

Yes indeed, but even a broken analog watch is right 2 twice a day …

And concerning THIS specific point in time? Gulp… He’s right.

Charter schools are great, but the amendment as presented now is all about who has control of the funds and what state elected officials control those appointments thereof, children? NOT so much.

It’s really ALL about the RACE to the TOP Federal Funding GA signed on for…

If you SUPPORT this amendment as written this go around, you invite ever DEEEPER FEDERAL involvement. That path has worked so WELL up to now hasn’t it?

This gentleman has articulated it better than most so I refer to the link below where backup detail is abundant for your independent appraisal.

http://politicalvine.com/politicalrumors/odds-and-ends/charter-schools-and-alec-the-facts-alec-doesnt-want-you-to-know/

And if you haven't checked out FL. for charter schools, use Google and see what the Miami Herald among others have dug up.

It’s a close vote out here , but the swing for me personally is how our general funds are being run at the Gold Dome right now with no REAL changes on the horizon.

Do we want to give the Governor (ANY Governor) yet MORE “special” layers right now?

Why would we believe this would be run any differently than say GRTA, STRA, Lottery Commission or GDOT?

We are promised "audits” and responsible regulation after the amendment is passed, but just look the case of a recent senator who was cited for NOT fulfilling his charge of setting up an audit committee. His punishment for failing outright in auditing? Being placed back in charge of setting up audits…

You just can’t make this stuff up and the MINDSET of our representatives needs to have a demonstrated, tangible change before we give additional control of even one more red cent or our blind belief when they tell us the sky is falling...

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WorldClass 1 year, 6 months ago

While I would have to admit that Wilbanks’ micromanaging style and tunnel vision have put him at odds with frustrated parents, teachers, and residents of Gwinnett County from time to time, and our elected school board has often appeased him instead of their constituent, I am firmly behind his opposition to the charter school amendment on the November ballot.

Then again, our GCPS superintendent should have foreseen this precedent upon creating Gwinnett School of Mathematics, Science, and Technology under the umbrella of a charter school instead of that of a magnet school.

In my opinion though, charter schools want the privilege of serving a select group of students in our community with local, state, and federal school funds. Basically, their charter grants them the freedom to function as a private school with tax dollars - without having to adhere to all the mandates and laws that structure our traditional public school that must enroll and serve all students indiscriminately.

We should all work together to make our public schools better, not work to dismantle them one charter school at a time.

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WorldClass 1 year, 6 months ago

While I would have to admit that Wilbanks’ micromanaging style and tunnel vision have put him at odds with frustrated parents, teachers, and residents of Gwinnett County from time to time, and our elected school board has often appeased him instead of their constituent, I am firmly behind his opposition to the charter school amendment on the November ballot.

Then again, our GCPS superintendent should have foreseen this precedent upon creating Gwinnett School of Mathematics, Science, and Technology under the umbrella of a charter school instead of that of a magnet school.

In my opinion, charter schools want the privilege of serving a select group of students in our community with local, state, and federal school funds. Basically, their charter grants them the freedom to function as a private school with tax dollars - without having to adhere to all the mandates and laws that structure our traditional public school that must enroll and serve all students indiscriminately.

We should all work together to make our public schools better, not work to dismantle them one charter school at a time.

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Gwinnettsince1991 1 year, 6 months ago

The current appeals process is a rubber stamp for the local school boards. This tries to allow for differing thoughts and approaches to education. Will we become Bailey Park or will we become Pottersville?

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Say_that_again 1 year, 6 months ago

Then explain how Ivy Prep was able to continue their charter after Gwinnett County BOE revoked it for under performance. The only different thoughts that I see is a method of funneling public education dollars into a for profit industry. This amendment will not accomplish anything else. It is unfortunate that so many have been convinced to ignore all the facts and go with the absurd idea: "everything should be privatized, regardless of the cost" . In this case, the cost is not only money, it is also the education future of the next generations. The only thing this amendment accomplishes is funneling local tax dollars into for profit schools. Many private schools are non profit, such as Ava White Academy that Dick Yarbrough wrote about . Have you ever wondered why private charter schools are not non-profit?

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BuzzG 1 year, 6 months ago

Our educators are not concerned about our children. They are concerned about their own paychecks. They want monopoly power over the money we spend on our children's education. It is time we break out of this abusive monopoly called GCPS and be allowed to send our kids to the best school available. Power to the people.

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roaads1 1 year, 6 months ago

Buzz. You hit it dead center.

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Don 1 year, 6 months ago

Just because a school is listed as a non-profit does not mean that the administrators can not get a huge salary. Most people really do not understand what a non-profit organization is. Here is the major thing " nonprofit organization uses its profit to improve its services, rather than pay dividends to investors.ere is the major thing ," Investors are not the paid employees which is where most of the money goes in charter schools, not the teachers. It is the group of organizers who get the cash.

The reason this should be voted down is there is no accountability for the money.

I ask you to do some research on how much money some CEO's of major non-profits make, you will be astounded.

BUZZ- It is called private schools, send the kids there if you do not like public schools but leave my tax money out of funding private schools.

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Mack711 1 year, 6 months ago

OK Don if we coudld send our kids most would. Then let us have the funds that we pay each year in school taxes and have these funds sent to a 'Private' School of OUR choice along with our children. Sounds like a plan.

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SickandTired 1 year, 6 months ago

Kevin, Gundoctor and Buzz make very good points. I too am always wary of JAW's positions. I don't trust him and feel he never has students best interest at heart...it's all about his control and his paycheck (which taxpayers fund so we essentially spent $5000). Tax dollars spent per GCPS student DO NOT belong to the system or JAW or the BOE - they belong to the child and should have the right to follow the child especially if that child is in an under performing school district. The GCPS BOE needs to be overhauled. Still no answers to why JAW sits on the county chamber board. Still no answers to why the school system pays the salaries of chamber employees with tax funds designated for education. The total to date on a no contract, no bid basis? Over $900,000!!!

Why does GCPS have 21% of their school resource officers making over $100K/year? Why does GCPS have 23% of their school resource officers making $90-100K/year? The average annual salary of a county LEO is $49K!!!!

Gwinnett County Schools – 159,814 students - $2,755,802 for 48 Security Personnel Salary Range Number of Security Personnel in Salary Range % of Personnel in Salary Range $100,000+ 10 21% $90,000 to $100,000 11 23% $80,000 to $90,000 0 0% $70,000 to $80,000 0 0% $60,000 to $70,000 1 2% $50,000 to $60,000 1 2% $40,000 to $50,000 1 2% $30,000 to $40,000 3 6% $20,000 to $30,000 8 17% $10,000 to $20,000 7 14% Less than $10,000 6 13% Total Personnel 48

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R 1 year, 6 months ago

Just don’t vote for a STATEWIDE constitutional amendment to address OUR local problems. The GCPS and BoC both have continued to fund the chamber during this downturn and have provided precious little backup detail about those expenditures or claimed ROI.

SO do you really believe for a NY minute that a STATE level board would be more responsive to LOCAL concerns? Remember the HOT lanes and the FLAT out refusal of STRA personnel to take local questions when it got heated? Do we NEED more of that again?

You may not be able to confirm future performance based on past results, but the trend-lines are indeed profound and unmistakable.

Even the 84 page dissenting position of the state court indicated the funding mechanisms in the 2008 bill that was struck down (and re-codified in the amendment's sister bills now on hold) DO indeed have impact on public school funding levels.

He clearly stated that if the state had left the earlier bill level mechanisms in place, there most likely would have been no court case pressed.

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Don_Coyote 1 year, 6 months ago

I don't see how one can profess to be a conservative and vote to add yet another layer of bureaucracy to suck up tax dollars. Especially when this extra bureaucracy's role is a furtherance of nanny state control over the wishes of locally elected officials. If you don't like the actions of your local school board the remedy is quite clear. Vote them out. There is no like recourse for this proposed commission.

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nag6970 1 year, 6 months ago

I no longer have children in the Gwinnett School system. I remember when Hull Middle School was built and the furnishing and office space was more than opulent along with the exercise equipment provide (not for the students) was beyond belief. This is not a group of folks who care about education. They care about being fair along with all the other "politically correct" position's stressed in our nation. What is wrong with seeking another avenue when the school system your child attends is not meeting their needs? There is no other logical answer than "Charter Schools". They will work for the students, and these individuals are the reason we have an education system, not for the tenured teachers. Freedom of Choice..........

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NewsReader 1 year, 6 months ago

The people who are voicing opposition to this measure are trying to protect the coveted grounds upon which they are squatting. Somewhere, somehow, they have declared a right to that which wasn't theirs in the first place. All the funding should follow the child no matter where they choose to go to school - end of story. It doesn't matter whether they attend public, charter, or private school. It is to the child's beneficiary, and no amount of discussion will replace the parental authority to channel your child into the school that best suits your child's needs.

Put a sock in it you whiney crybabies. Let the vote take its course, and let the Charter School Commission begin. If the local school boards were getting it done, we wouldn't be having this conversation ad nauseam, let alone amendment. You put your poor excuse of an educational establishment in place. You're FIRED! Now move along.

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R 1 year, 6 months ago

Those in opposition are just as learned and perhaps even more so that the pro camp at times. This amendment is being approached eerily similar to the TSPLOST marketing, it’s just not as blatantly overreaching.

And the position of funding following the student (AKA vouchers) it is frankly NOT this amendment. We are constantly told the charters accept ALL students, yet Ivy Prep, the star of this debate is restricted to FEMALES only. So what public county high school is restricted by sex?

(Open for correction if I'm incorrect)

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Don 1 year, 6 months ago

Mack:

Would you like to provide your own police protection and not pay for this service. Call your own security company?

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SickandTired 1 year, 6 months ago

Well said NewsReader. Don...been trying to vote out MK Murphy for years. She has got to go. Hoping and praying Jen Falk can beat her this year.

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dentaldawg83 1 year, 5 months ago

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

A board appointed by the govenor and not answerable to the general public via the ballot box will be given control of public money (that as of right now goes to local school systems) to give to both profit and non-profit charter schools. Presently the state of Georgia CAN approve state charter schools, they just can't do it with the money that is targeted for local school systems. Please read up on this issue and make sure you vote no

I am for charter schools because I think innovation and change can help education. Charter schools can, in theory, experiment with new institutional parameters that may, in theory, produce better results. BUT, the amendment as written is entirely unjust and deceptive. The amendment mentions "local" control. But it is the opposite: a state bureaucracy will approve taking local funds to create charter schools initiated by people outside the school district. The main lobbying and advertising is from private charter school companies, the majority of whom are from Florida.

The way charter schools are set up now is the epitome of local control and democracy. The local school board sets up the terms of the contract---"the charter"-- with whatever entity wants to set up an innovative school. The locally elected official releases local funds and holds the charter school accountable for the education of the children in that district. Democracy isn't perfect, but you know a school board election can be won by 30 concerned parents. That is better than a state commissioned bankrolled by private corporations (maybe corporation make better schools, but I don't like their political influence--some of the best performing charters have been started by parents or alliances of parents and teachers). We already have 200 charter schools in the state of Georgia and new ones are opening up every year, all created by school boards.

Vote no and also use your vote to start weaning out these politicians who keep coming to us with these awful issues meant to strip us of our ability to control our govts.

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