All eyes on Georgia, Washington as voters consider charter school initiatives
November 6th, 2012
04:10 AM ET

All eyes on Georgia, Washington as voters consider charter school initiatives

By Donna Krache, CNN

(CNN) On Tuesday, voters in two states – Washington and Georgia – will be weighing in on charter schools.

Charter schools are independent public schools that have flexibility in certain aspects of education like curriculum and length of the school day. In return for this flexibility, they are held accountable for student performance.

The research is mixed on whether students in charters perform better than their traditional public school counterparts. Some cite the CREDO study from Stanford University, which found that “17% of charter schools provide superior education opportunities for their students.” According to this study, about half the charters did not fare any better or worse than their traditional school counterparts, and about 37% of the charters fared worse.

Others cite research like that found in the “Informing the Debate” study from the Boston Foundation,  which “found large positive effects for Charter Schools at both the middle and high school levels.”

Currently, 41 states and the District of Columbia have charter schools.

The topic of charter schools, including how they are established and who gets to attend them, stirs up a lot of emotion among parents, educators and policymakers.  Because it’s relatively new territory, shaping legislation on charters has become a public tug-of-war. The states of Washington and Georgia have charter school initiatives on their ballots.

Washington’s Initiative 1240

Washington has put ballot measures on charters in front of voters three times before, each one rejected – most recently in 2004, when the measure failed by 16 percentage points.  There are no charter schools in Washington.

The latest attempt is Initiative 1240, which would allow for the establishment of eight charter schools in the state per year – 40 over five years. At the end of that period, the charter system would be up for review. The state-approved charter schools would be free and open to all students and be independently operated.

Washington is bound by its state constitution to fully fund education. In the tough economic times of the last three years, the state cut $2.5 billion from its education budget.  Earlier this year, the Washington Supreme Court ruled that the state was underfunding its public schools so much that it was not meeting its constitutional obligation to educate each child. The state was ordered to comply with its constitutional mandate and not to make further cuts for fiscal reasons.

Critics of charters say this is a bad time for I-1240, that it is the wrong time for the state to embark on a new system of schools that they say will cost more money.

“Why would you add charters at a cost of millions of dollars at a time when we haven’t fully funded what we have now?” asks Marianne Bichsel, communications director for People for Our Public Schools. 

Bichsel said the organization’s opposition to I-1240 is not about opposition to charter schools, it’s about a “poorly written” measure that she said will at best serve less than 1% of Washington’s students and families. She points out that the eight schools established each year will choose their students by lottery.

“This is the wrong approach at the wrong time,” Bichsel said. “We need solutions to serve all students.”

Supporters of I-1240 say that charter schools would offer parents choices and insert true competition into the educational space.  The charter schools they envision would not be bound by district curriculum mandates and policies and not be subject to teachers unions’ wishes.

Liv Finne, director for education at the Washington Policy Center, calls 1240 “a modest proposal” in that it would allow for only eight charter schools per year in a state that currently has more than 2,300 schools.

She and other charter advocates want a decentralized, accountable system of schools.  Finne believes that I-1240 is one way to create that kind of system and bring parents alternatives to failing schools.

“For too long, Washington state has clung to an outmoded highly centralized system of delivering education, which the evidence shows fails to adequately educate far too many children,” said Finne.

She points out that in the 41 states that have charters, they are popular with parents, the public and policymakers.

Bichsel said that  I-1240  mandates that the charter schools would be run by independent charter operators and interests outside Washington. The initiative, she said, is being funded by wealthy individuals both inside and outside the state.

As of October 18, Bill Gates has donated more than $3 million to support I-1240, according to the Washington Post. 

Microsoft billionaire Paul Allen of Seattle and Alice Walton of Wal-Mart founding family have also contributed, among others, according to state public disclosure records.

Supporters of the initiative, including Finne, point to the financial muscle of Washington state’s teachers unions and approximately $33 million per year that is collected in union dues as the other side of the money trail. The unions are against the charter initiative.

Georgia’s Amendment 1

In Georgia, 2,700 miles away, voters also have charters on their minds.

Charter schools have existed in Georgia for 17 years. If a group wants to start a charter school, it brings its petition before a local school board, which will approve or deny the request. If rejected, the group can go to the State Board of Education, but if the charter is granted, the school cannot receive local tax funding, only state and federal funds.

There was a third route: The Georgia Charter Schools Commission.  But in 2011, the Georgia Supreme Court ruled this commission unconstitutional.  The result was the drafting of Amendment 1 to the Georgia State Constitution.

Amendment 1 would give a  state commission the authority to approve charters.  A commission of individuals appointed by the governor, lieutenant governor and state House speaker could approve a charter school petition that had been denied by a local school board and the state board.

Rich Thompson is a parent of two daughters.  He and his family live in Southwest Atlanta. Every school day, he drives past the neighborhood school located half a mile from his home to transport his daughters to two charter schools more than 10 miles away. He supports Amendment 1.

Thompson said he tells other parents that his daughters, like their kids, are unique and that they need a school system tailored “to their needs, and not the needs of a system.”

He said his daughters are thriving in the charter school environment, which he believes is because it is a “culture of higher achievement,” versus that of his neighborhood school.

Thompson said that he tried to help change his neighborhood school, asking questions about spending priorities and advocating for academic rigor. But even while serving on the local school council, he kept hitting roadblocks. “I saw how gridlocked the system was when I saw parents who just wanted to make the system better just turned away at every turn,” he said.  “It only seemed to matter when I pulled my child out of that system and put her in a public charter school.”

In his daughters’ charter schools, Thompson said, “the principal is very attuned to the needs of students and parents, and he listens to what we have to say. … That is the difference that I see in a public charter school that I’d really like to see more parents get.”

Opponents of Amendment 1 say charter interests will be able to do an “end-around” to the established school boards.  If a local school board denies the charter petition, the petitioner would simply go to the state commission and ask, they say.

They also agree with their counterparts in Washington who say charters siphon money away from traditional public schools, especially at a time when funding is tight.

But even among those who support charters, there are those who oppose this amendment, because they say it will take authority from elected officials and put it in the hands of commission appointees.

The Georgia PTA, which supports charter schools, is opposed to Amendment 1.

Karen Hallacy is the legislative chair for the Georgia PTA.  She said the PTA supports school choice, but that “Amendment 1 is not about school choice.”

“This is about creating a bureaucracy at the state level that is not accountable to any taxpayer, that they can authorize schools where there hasn’t been a demand for them, and siphon funds away from schools,” said Hallacy.

She also pointed out that parental involvement, one of the foundations of charter schools, is not part of the proposed amendment. Nor is there a requirement for certified teachers in the state-sanctioned charter schools in Amendment 1, she said.

Hallacy said, “Follow the money and understand that the people who are pushing this amendment are not the people who understand education. It is the people who stand to gain financially from it, the for-profit organizations that are concerned more with their bottom line than the education of the child.”

The amendment has become a lightning rod in the state.  Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal supports it.  Georgia’s state school superintendent, John Barge, does not.

To complicate matters further, a Dalton teacher and an Atlanta minister have filed a lawsuit claiming the wording of the ballot question is “purposely misleading.”

Thompson said there is “nothing misleading whatsoever” in the amendment, and that he wants other parents to have the “marvelous experience” his family has in their charter schools.

Hallacy agrees that there are ways to improve public education, but she said this amendment is not one of them.

“This is not about education,” said Hallacy. “This is about money and power, and people should vote against this.”

Posted by
Filed under: Charter schools • Issues • Parents • Policy • Politics • Practice • Uncategorized
soundoff (30 Responses)
  1. Jorge

    I live in Georgia and believe me, this place desperately needs SOMETHING to raise the bar for public education...

    November 14, 2012 at 3:23 pm |
  2. JOSE--USMC-0311

    I WOULD RATHER NOT SEND MY KIDS TO THE RUN DOWN–INFESTED GANG SCHOOL. I WOULD KEEP MY KID HOME AND DEMAND SOMETHING BETTER.. LETS GO ON TRIKE TO DEMAND BETTER SCHOOLS FOR OUR LOW INCOME PARENTS.

    CAN YOU IMAGINE SENDING YOUR KIDS TO CHICAGO SOUTH SIDE SCHOOLS ?? EAST L.A. SCHOOLS ? GANG INFESTED SCHOOLS...LOW INCOME PARENTS SHOULD KEEP THEIR KIDS HOME AND GO ON STRIKE.

    November 10, 2012 at 10:26 pm |
  3. Lisa

    It's kinda obvious that the people commenting here that are against charter schools are in public school education or quoting data from unknown sources. But people here FOR charter schools are those who have actual experience with them. Enough said.

    November 6, 2012 at 8:58 pm |
    • analgogkid

      Anecdotal evidence is not as reliable as carefully controlled data from several sources. Lots of people can say that they smoke and have never gotten lung cancer. Does that mean that their experience is a better indicator of the dangers of smoking than all of the scientific evidence?

      November 7, 2012 at 7:45 pm |
  4. Jay

    BTW, I'm cool with giving better students better educational opportunities. We need to get rid of the political correctness in Washington State. Push kids that aren't going to be engineers, scientists or lawyers into trade schools after high school. Thoes that have the most promise should be put into charter schools where they are given the chance to push the boundaries they are capable of.

    November 6, 2012 at 8:04 pm |
  5. Jay

    Time to abolish public employee unions. They've long since outlived their usefulness and do far more damage than good these days.

    November 6, 2012 at 8:01 pm |
    • SJS

      Unions have nothing to do with charter schools. Sit down and shut up.

      November 10, 2012 at 12:19 am |
  6. QS

    Voted no on I-1240 for WA state.

    Fund the schools we have already so that they are in top working condition....THEN, then if you can still claim that charter schools are better than an efficiently working public school, I might listen.

    Until then, charter schools are nothing more than "private" schools, as much as they want to say they're open to all children, and they aren't even accountable to anybody but the people who independently run the school.

    Too little oversight, too much speculation. Properly fund the public school system first.

    November 6, 2012 at 7:26 pm |
    • mshrmit

      Completely agree. I voted against this as well.

      November 6, 2012 at 7:43 pm |
  7. Alger Dave

    Not only do charters typically show more concern for achievement and parental wishes, but they are also almost always cheaper to run than traditional public schools. Here in Michigan, charters collect the state's per pupil allotment, but not the local milage monies (whcih are usually for buildings and improvements). This means that charters work off roughly $7,500 per pupil, while public schools get about $12,000 (including those millage and bond funds). So, for about $4,500 less money (about 30% less or so), charters provide better educations (their students almost always score well above students at nearby public schools) and are very popular with parents. Teacher unions love to have control via the public school system, which really should be called the teacher's union funding mechanism, so they always oppose charter schools. Parents are wising up to this, and charters are gaining across the nation. Teacher's unions should be outlawed, as we saw a few months ago in Chicago – the are only concerned about lining their pockets.

    November 6, 2012 at 6:24 pm |
    • Scubus

      Charter schools are able to function more cheaply (and I am not sure that is true, it isn' there in Florida) because they often cut corners and cherry pick the most "profitable" students. In fact, several studies have shown that in neighborhoods where charters have replaced traditional public schools many students who are at risk or have disablilites are not receiving education services.

      It is also a misconception that charter schools are more responsive to parental concerns. Charter schools cater to parents who have already "bought into" the standards and curriculum of that particular charter school. Indeed, if the school found those programs to be unprofitable, they would no longer offer those programs, regardless of parental wishes.

      November 6, 2012 at 7:55 pm |
  8. Brewtowner

    Why doesn't it surprise me that conservatives are once again pushing for something that doesn't work & can be backed up by data. This 20 year experiment with charter & voucher schools have been a dismal failure here in Milwaukee. They have done nothing to improve educational levels or test scores of children in my city. It's kind of like when conservatives privatize city water services or trash pick-up. It doesn't improve quality, and it ends up costing the taxpayer more money

    November 6, 2012 at 6:14 pm |
  9. brandon

    I agree with what graciousedan on what he or she is saying.

    November 6, 2012 at 4:17 pm |
  10. melissa

    I wish my county had a charter school. I am a single, full time working, college educated Mother to a child who has a learning disability. At times I must move within our county but into different school districts due to financial difficulties either for me or the land lord. I hate to move schools everytime we may have to move. If we had a charter school, this would not be the case. Also, charter schools have a lower class size meaning more attention for my challanged little guy. I live in a fantastic county with good schools. I just hate how they are unable to bend rules for certian situations where charters can.

    November 6, 2012 at 12:54 pm |
    • graciousedan

      Well I go to a virtual charter school. What state are you in? If you go to http://www.k12.com you can get information on it. My school is a free public online virtual charater school and fully acredited.

      November 6, 2012 at 7:12 pm |
    • Jim Wangsness

      To Graciousedan:

      Charter schools within my school district here in Los Angeles are not required to take "challenging" students who would drag down the test scores and also drive up the per pupil cost because it does cost lots more to individualize instruction for some kids. Therefore, kids with cognitive and/or behavioral issues are the ones who typically get left behind when a charter school opens. You are fortunate to have charters in your area that will accommodate your needs. Most charter schools don't.

      November 6, 2012 at 8:34 pm |
  11. Lena

    Just get your education in Europe. Germans offers free college education to everyone. You can even take your classes in German and get a bachelor or master degree. Here is link: http://www.free-german-education.org

    November 6, 2012 at 12:44 pm |
  12. Dee

    Taught at a couple charter schools and two public school districts. My experience, and students' parents, is mostly negative. It's corrupt and moneymaking nonsense.
    Money needs to go to help public schools and recruiting smarter college students to be teachers.

    November 6, 2012 at 9:54 am |
  13. graciousedan

    To add to my previous statement, my teachers at my charter school are way more involved and care way more about student success than any regular school teacher I have ever met. My teachers are amazing and I actually learn more at a charter school than the typically public school. People need to know what charter schools have done for many families before they judge them. You should reconsider what you say about charter schools because you know nothing about the children who go there and what their daily life is like, so who are you to say we can't have our public education in a different setting?

    November 6, 2012 at 9:35 am |
  14. James Mulhern

    Charter schools are a way to destroy public education. Public education is the foundation of our democracy. It saddens me that many American citizens have shrugged off this most basic principle. The future of our country depends on strengthening public education, not destroying it.

    James Mulhern, http://www.synthesizingeducation.net

    November 6, 2012 at 7:25 am |
    • graciousedan

      I am sorry but you are wrong. I attend a virtual charter school in Georgia and it helps me. It is a blessing to the 12,000 students that attend my school. It makes it where they can actually learn and have communication with teachers. Many of the students that attend my school can't got to a regular school because they have other things to do and having a virtual charter school allows us to further our careers and our future. I work twice as hard as any eleventh grade student in regular school does. I am top of the class and have all A's. Charter schools are good for children who have a busy schedule, are sick, get picked on at school, or like me, I didn't have a set in stone house for a year, but I had a set in stone school. I am still required to pass EOCT's and the graduation test. Charter schools are no different than regular schools. You need to know all the facts before you formulate an opinion on a topic you no nothing about.

      November 6, 2012 at 9:30 am |
      • and.....

        Your virtual charter school will not be affected one way or the other by this amendment. I am pro-charter but voted NO on the amendment. We do not need another layer of government to approve charters in Georgia – there are already multiple avenues by which this can be accomplished. The Ga Legislature has made cut after cut in the education budget, and this would put even more stress on what little money there is that is left.

        November 6, 2012 at 1:51 pm |
      • Scubus

        ...and you form your opinion based on flawed, anecdotal evidence.

        Virtually all of the peer reviewed, independent research available shows that overall charter school do cinsiderably worse than their public school peers. In addition, virtual schools are even more problematic.

        That is not to say that there are no charter schools that perform well (research shows there are) nor does that say that your personal experience has not been beneficial. However, that is not the case in most cases.

        I am also at a loss as to why people continue to assume that public schools are a poor choice, again, the data shows that isn't true nor do I understand the thinking that siphoning off money to for-profit schools is going to make public schools better. The failed public school is a myth repeated by opportunistic businessmen and politicians who see a chance to profit from the myth.

        Finally, schools can only do so much. Many of the problems students have are of their own making yet we choose not to address those issues.

        November 6, 2012 at 7:49 pm |
      • Jim Wangsness

        Sorry to be picky, but the expression is "etched in stone", not set in stone. Words are "etched" into a surface.

        November 6, 2012 at 8:52 pm |
    • PY

      most people will vote for charter school not to destroy public schools ,but to give children the best education they can ,and sorry,but in a lot of states public schools is not it.

      November 6, 2012 at 6:07 pm |