The senators vs. the students

Two years after Georgians voted overwhelmingly for more public-school choice, some legislators can’t bring themselves to give charter schools even a little help.

The Senate education committee Thursday voted to remove almost every charter-related provision from the annual public education “clean up” bill, HB 897, which makes various clarifications and corrections throughout state education law.

It’s as if these senators don’t believe publicly funded, publicly approved charter schools are really public schools.

The provisions in question are hardly ground-breaking measures. For example, it has been state law since 2009 that local school systems  “make [their] unused facilities available to local charter schools.”

As it passed the House (with a two-thirds majority), HB 897 would clarify that an “unused facility” is “a school building or other local board of education owned building that is or could be appropriate for school use in which less than 40 percent of the direct student instruction and critical administration space is being used.”

That such a term requires such an obvious clarification is a testament to how hostile some — though certainly not all — local school systems remain toward charters.

That such a clarification would be cut out of an education “clean up” bill as if it does something other than cleaning up the law is a testament to how hostile some lawmakers, even some Republicans, also remain toward charters.

Some other measures excised from the bill would only strengthen the chartering process. One provision would direct the state school board to ensure charter authorizers — usually local school systems — are following best practices to hold charter schools accountable and give them the autonomy granted them by law. Why would we want anything less?

Another provision directs the state school board to establish a “separate and expedited process for high-performing charter schools to replicate, renew, or expand their school design.” As the entire point of allowing charter schools is to encourage the creation of new, high-quality public schools, why wouldn’t we want to make it easier for charters that have proved their mettle to expand and serve more students?

In each of these cases, these legislative changes would help make Georgia more attractive to the nation’s best charter operators, many of which have been reluctant to set up shop here because our approval process can be difficult and their opportunities for rapid growth are more limited than in other states. Why would we want to continue dissuading them?

If senators think specific charter provisions of HB 897 need to go, they should argue against those provisions on the merits. They shouldn’t opt instead for a blanket removal of almost all of them.

And to the degree they object to provisions that seem closer to making policy than clarifying it — a distinction that exists chiefly in the eye of the beholder — they should take a look at some of the provisions for traditional public schools in HB 897.

In the two years since the charter schools amendment breezed through a statewide referendum, legislators have taken a cautious approach to further advances. That’s too bad. But balking at even these modest changes is even worse.

By Kyle Wingfield
AJC

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