Fourth-grader Elvia Tisoco works on a project as part of a "cluster" group at J.J. Harris Elementary School, a locally approved charter school in Athens.
In 2007, parents in Greene County's Reynolds Plantation—home to some of the richest and politically best-connected people in the state—petitioned to open a charter school.
The proposal split wealthy, white newcomers near Lake Oconee and mostly black, poorer longtime residents in the northern part of the county. Charter school supporters wanted to pull their children out of private schools and subpar public schools; opponents called it a private school at public expense and a throwback to Jim Crow.
After pitched battles in Greensboro and Atlanta, the state Board of Education eventually approved Lake Oconee Academy. Proponents tweaked attendance lines to allow anyone in Greene County to apply, although students who live in the gated communities near the lake still get preference. Right around that time, state Rep. Keith Heard, D-Athens, says he started hearing talk at the Capitol of a new, easier way to approve charter schools. Then, in 2008, the legislature created the state Charter Schools Commission.
But in 2011, the state Supreme Court struck down that law, ruling that the Georgia Constitution gives local school boards the sole authority to open charter schools. Republicans—backed up by right-wing advocacy groups and for-profit school management companies—leapt into action, voting last spring to put Amendment 1 on the Nov. 6 ballot, asking voters to reauthorize the Charter Schools Commission. If it passes, Heard says he expects more Lake Oconee Academies in the future.
"I don't want to see us go back to the way we were in this state," he says. "Resegregation. Let's call it what it is."
Of course, charter school advocates say the charter school amendment is about improving education, not race. The status quo isn't working, says Jim Geiser, who worked at an inner-city charter school in Baton Rouge, LA and now runs an internship program at the University of Georgia.
"Kids who are dropping out, and kids who are refusing to go to public school in the first place, the kids who choose private school, home school," Geiser says. "They're choosing those because they see the results of traditional public schools."
The fight is not over charter schools, though. It's over who has the power to approve them.
Clarke County school officials say that they—not an appointed state board—should be the ones to decide whether charter schools are right for this community. And the county Board of Education has already approved two charter schools, Judia Jackson Harris Elementary and the Athens Community Career Academy, a vocational high school that's a partnership with UGA, Athens Tech and the anti-poverty group OneAthens.
These schools opened to address students' needs that weren't being met elsewhere. Students at J.J. Harris, for example, are taught a "gifted" curriculum that's meant to strengthen reading and math skills through lessons in subjects such as television production or gardening. As a charter school, it has the flexibility to change its curriculum in exchange for higher academic targets, according to CCSD. The career academy blends high school classes with other skills needed in the workforce.
When a group approached the school district early last year about starting a third charter school in the district—nicknamed STEAM for its science, technology, engineering, arts and math curriculum—initial discussions didn't show much of a difference between the STEAM curriculum and the one already offered throughout the district, where students have access to computer labs, art and music, and specialized math instruction, Clarke County School Superintendent Phil Lanoue says. Ultimately, the group proposing the STEAM curriculum, which also approached several other school districts across Georgia, never made a formal proposal to the school board, he says. "The bigger issue is the control of who makes the decisions of the schools going into your area," Lanoue says. "Can someone else make a decision?"
Incoming state Rep. Regina Quick, R-Athens, has raised similar concerns. She hasn't taken a position on the amendment, but says she has serious qualms about state bureaucracy run amok. "From a government accountability standpoint, I'm having difficulty taking local control away from local districts," Quick says.
Under the current system, any group can propose a charter school to their local school board. If the proposal is denied, the group can appeal to the state Department of Education. Amendment 1 would create a separate, seven-member board, appointed by the governor, president of the state Senate and speaker of the House, which allows groups to bypass local elected officials by creating a new, statewide school district.
"If a charter school wants to apply for a statewide attendance zone, they do not have to go to the Clarke County school board for any sort of review process," says Bryan Long of Better Georgia, an Athens-based progressive group. "If they apply as a statewide attendance zone, they go straight to the state bureaucracy of political appointees. That's where the chaos comes in."
State Sen. Bill Cowsert, R-Athens, who supports the amendment, credits CCSD for creating two charter schools. "From what I've observed, local school boards have embraced the concept of charter schools," Cowsert says.
But not all school districts have been open to charter schools, even when the proposals set high standards and would benefit students, says Mark Peavy, the former head of the Charter Schools Commission who now heads up the pro-amendment Families for Better Public Schools. "It's clearly not a willy-nilly approval process," he says. "The ones we've approved have, in many cases, been rejected for very subjective reasons."
From its founding in 2008 to the Supreme Court's ruling in 2011, the Charter Schools Commission approved 14 of about 80 applications, Peavy says, denying accusations that the board will be a rubber stamp.
"If you're not doing something new or better than your local district, perhaps it's not really justified why you need a charter school here," he says.
Geiser, the reform advocate originally from Louisiana, says he's seen how a charter school can engage both parents and students. It's about a balance of choice, he says, and he feels Clarke County can do better.
"In a lot of these charter schools that are serving the inner city community, the school goes out to them," he says. "We would go out to the public housing projects; we would take the kid to the parent and deal with the issue on their territory, and it's that kind of mind-set that a charter school can bring in addressing these issues. We've got to totally change how we think about public education; it's a different way of doing business."
Geiser and Lanoue disagree on how well CCSD is educating students. They even disagree on how CCSD measures how many students are dropping out. They agree, though, on the main benefits of charter schools, which can have a different school calendar, for example, or flexible hours. But opponents of Amendment 1 fear the Charter Schools Commission would be more likely to approve startups run by out-of-state, for-profit companies that otherwise wouldn't get local approval. And it's the local, grassroots efforts that Geiser says are key to charter school success.
"I much prefer creating the schools from the community," he says, noting that an out-of-state company can recruit local residents to serve on a charter school's board, although Long argues that local board members wouldn't be required for a charter school approved by the governor-appointed board.
"Charter schools are not a magic solution to the issue of public education," Geiser says. "They are a piece, and to me the piece is how we govern our schools."
Amendment 1 is not just about education, or race, or local control. It's also about money—both funding for traditional public schools and the profits private companies earn by contracting to charter schools. The sources of the cash that's funding a $2.7 million campaign to convince voters to approve the amendment have critics wondering what's their motivation.
"This is about big money," Heard says. "It's not about educating our kids."
The Georgia Association of Educators has dubbed Amendment 1 "crony capitalism." Almost all of the money behind the pro-amendment campaign comes from out-of-state, including contributions from Walmart heiress Alice Walton, tea party bankrollers the Koch Brothers, disgraced Christian conservative Ralph Reed's Faith and Freedom Coalition and private companies that earn profits operating charter schools, according to campaign finance records. The bill putting the amendment on the ballot was based on one written by the American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC, a corporate-funded conservative group that writes model legislation for state lawmakers.
"It really concerns me where all these groups are getting money from," says Brett Johns, a Democratic blogger who spoke on an Amendment 1 panel last month.
School management companies are getting involved because they believe in charter schools, not because they see dollar signs, Peavy says. "There's not a whole lot of profit out there," Peavy says. "The only way to do it is to do it way more efficiently."
How do they do it more efficiently? Charter schools are so called because they abide by a charter, not state and federal regulations. They don't have to hire certified teachers, so they can pay lower wages. Nor do they have to bus or feed students, or accept expensive-to-educate children with special needs, as long as special-needs services are provided elsewhere in the district. Low-income parents are finding innovative ways to transport their children, and charter schools do make arrangements for lunch, according to Peavy, but CCSD board members contend that many charter schools are only an option for middle- and upper-income families, not students whose parents can't drive them to school or buy them lunch.
"It's going to create a caste system, and it's going to create private schools at public school prices," Denise Spangler says.
Although state-chartered schools don't receive local property taxes, they do get about $6,800 per pupil from the state—the average of the five lowest-funded counties in the state, according to Peavy. That's about $2,000 more than the state pays to educate a student at a traditional public school, and it's about $2,000 less per student than the average Georgia school when local property taxes are factored in. The money comes from a special fund—not the regular education budget—and amounts to $34 million this year.
Educators fear that, if the state approves more charter schools, they could drain the already-shrinking pot of money for traditional public schools. State School Superintendent John Barge estimates that, if the Charter Schools Commission is revived, the schools it approves will cost the state $430 million over five years. Lawmakers have promised not to cut other schools' funding to pay for charter schools, but they haven't identified how they would cover the cost of new charter schools.
The new expenses would come at a time when schools across the state are dealing with state budget cuts totaling $4 billion since the 2007 recession began. The cuts blew a $15 million hole in this year's CCSD budget, leading the school board to eliminate first-grade and media center parapros, among other controversial decisions.
"It's like I have eight children; I can't feed them, but I [have] four more," Clarke County school board member Vernon Payne says.
Stakes are so high that Amendment 1 proponents are trying to muzzle critics. State Attorney General Sam Olens ordered Barge to take down anti-amendment materials from the Department of Education's website, citing a law barring elected officials from using taxpayer resources to campaign. As Democrats have pointed out, however, Olens didn't order Gov. Nathan Deal to remove pro-amendment speeches from his website. Conservative activists also filed a lawsuit in Fulton County seeking to stop school officials from speaking out against Amendment 1, but a judge declined to issue an injunction last week.
All the "noise," as people on both sides refer to it, isn't helping voters make up their minds, and the amendment's fate is unclear. Polls taken by pro-amendment forces in July and September found that 58 percent of voters support it. But one released Oct. 11 by the anti-amendment Georgians for Education Excellence shows 52 percent of voters opposing it.
"If Republicans aren't strongly in favor of it, I don't think it's going to pass," UGA political scientist Charles Bullock says. "It's not going to get a whole lot of support from Democrats."
Five Things You Should Know About Amendment 1
Local school boards can already approve charter schools. A constitutional amendment on the Nov. 6 ballot would let an appointed state Charter Schools Commission approve them as well if locals object.
School choice advocates—including the Koch brothers and Walmart heiress Alice Walton—are spending big bucks to get the amendment passed.
Although nonprofits govern charter schools, they can hire for-profit companies, paid with tax dollars, to run them.
Charter schools created under the amendment will cost the state an estimated $430 million at a time when funding for regular public schools is being cut.
Statewide teachers' organizations, the Clarke County Board of Education, almost all Democrats and even some Republicans oppose the amendment.