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.
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.
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."