Staff Photos: Frank Reddy At left, Superintendent J. Alvin Wilbanks speaks Monday night during a forum discussing a proposed constitutional amendment. At right is House Rep. Jan Jones during the forum.
PEACHTREE CORNERS -- The highest ranked non-elected official in the state's largest school district and the first female speaker pro tem in the history of the Georgia House took opposing sides Monday night on a hot button issue that drew hundreds.
Superintendent J. Alvin Wilbanks and Rep. Jan Jones spoke during a forum on a proposed constitutional amendment that would guarantee the state's authority to charter independent public schools. It's a matter that voters will decide on Nov. 6.
Jones told the group that "the nice thing about public charter schools ... is that they put local control where it counts most: the parents. It allows parents to select for their children an independent charter school that would best meet their needs."
Added Jones: "The reality is, we have too many students falling through the cracks. I happen to believe Georgia should give students more opportunities ... sometimes schools just don't have the right fit for students."
Wilbanks and Jones each had 20 minutes to speak their piece.
Gwinnett's superintendent told the group that the amendment they'll have the chance to vote on "is not about charter schools. I have no problem with charter schools. We have plans for three or four more as we speak. The real issue is ... at a time of severe financial means ... where is the money coming from?"
Added Wilbanks: "Go ahead and approve charter schools, but make sure you use a vehicle that's already available to you. (With this amendment) you're setting up a dual school system, and quite frankly folks ... you know we've had two school systems before in this state. We used to say they were separate but equal. Now, the separate was correct, but I don't think the equal was, do you?"
Many of those who Wilbanks and Jones addressed were students of charter schools and their parents. Angela Palmer brought her daughter, Olivia Gates, 11, in support of the amendment. Gates waved a sign that read, "Kids win when parents choose."
Palmer said she was a supporter of the charter schools amendment, because "it puts the choice back into the hands of the parents."
Palmer isn't alone in her support. She has the company of public officials like Gov. Nathan Deal, who has personally lobbied lawmakers on the amendment and is urging Georgia voters to support it in November.
Gwinnett County Public School board leaders, however, have voiced public opposition.
In August, the local leaders adopted a resolution during a board of education meeting stating the district's stance against the constitutional amendment.
Gwinnett County Public School board leaders aren't alone in their opposition.
On Aug. 14, State School Superintendent John Barge announced publicly he also was against it.
The General Assembly endorsed the amendment after the Georgia Supreme Court struck down an earlier law that allowed the state to create the publicly financed, but privately operated schools.
The court ruled that the existing Georgia Constitution gives local boards control over K-12 education, including issuing independent charters. Advocates for charter schools argued that local officials were dragging their feet in approving charter applications. The constitutional change and a separate statute would restore a state commission that would issue charters to private operators.
-- The Associated Press contributed to this story.