The debate over the use of charter schools within Georgia ought to be over policy, not politics. That said, in these hyper-partisan times, everything can become a political issue. Like most political issues, the reality is much broader than a one or two word description attached to it as a slogan (School Choice, Reproductive Rights vs. Pro-Life, Death Tax vs. Inheritance Tax, the Fair Tax vs. Tax Fairness to name a few from the right and left).
I have tried to steer away from these slogans when it comes to education, and stick to policy. The truth is that I support the creation of charter schools because I think it makes sense to allow greater choice within the public schools. This is especially true when the child, the parents, or both want a more specialized institution; whether it has a focus on math, science, the performing arts, music, or just has a single sex student body. I have voted in favor of Charter School measures in the past and support other efforts to innovate within the public school framework. Things like magnet schools, international baccalaureate schools, and schools that specialize in vocational education should all be expanded, enhanced and funded so that families and students have the options to choose a public education that best meets their needs.
Admittedly, as a Democrat, this has sometimes been a hard needle to thread. Many in the base of my party see Charter Schools as a vehicle to privatizing education and issuing vouchers. At the same time many Democrats have also been staunch supporters of this concept including the former Governor of Indiana, Evan Bayh, and our current President, Barrack Obama. In fact, funding for his “Race to the Top” program is directed at and contingent on having strong charter school programs. Additionally, it is a little known fact that the concept of Charter Schools didn’t come from anti-public education Republicans, but by leaders in teachers unions who wanted schools that had increased flexibility for their teachers.
I have stuck to what I believe is good long term policy in encouraging, supporting, and, yes, in some cases, mandating that public schools offer more diverse programs and options to those they serve. That is why originally I voted for HB881, which created the state charter school commission that was recently struck down by the Georgia Supreme Court. I’m comfortable with that vote, would vote that way again on that bill, and would vote that way again even after reading the Georgia Supreme Court opinion in Gwinnett School District vs. Cox. The reality is that 38 states (which are Red, Blue, and Purple) have some form of state authorizer for charter schools. Having a state authorizer for public schools in Georgia spells neither the end of public schools as we know it nor surrenders Democratic Party principles to some right wing appeasement agenda.
I wish that this issue had not become such a partisan one this year. It seems like the list of litmus tests each elected official faces from the base of their party grows each year. To dare to vote against these litmus tests, or even question them, gets you accused of being a DINO or RINO (Democrat in Name Only or Republican in Name Only) by our respective bases. It’s what contributes to the retirements of accomplished US Senators such as Democrat Ben Nelson and Republican Olympia Snow. It’s what contributes to the permanent gridlock in Washington where working together isn’t just frowned on – it’s considered heresy. I don’t think there is time for similar partisan intransigence in a state that is consistently in the bottom three in our country’s educational rankings.
Ultimately that is why I chose to vote for HR1162, the proposed constitutional amendment to allow a state authorizer for charter schools. Voting for it along with 39 other State Senators and 163 State Representatives, both Democrats and Republicans, now sends this issue to Georgia’s voters. There will be a referendum on the November ballot that will finally settle whether Georgia will, in fact, have a state authorizor for charter schools.
Voting for HR1162 was consistent with my prior support of public charter schools and consistent with my support of innovation within the framework of public schooling. Supporting that sort of innovation is what will help close the achievement gap our students face. Supporting that sort of innovation is also proof that public schools are the best way to ensure a quality education for our state’s children, while drastic and ideologically driven causes like private school vouchers aren’t.
Charter schools are not a panacea. There is no magic bullet to fix Georgia’s public education system: not charter schools, not union contracts, not vouchers, not simply spending more money, and not even the small class sizes that have long been the core proposal I have made to improve our state’s public education system. The reality is that it will take multiple efforts on multiple fronts, adequate funding and adequate revenue to do them, and the patience to stick with the long term commitment of consistently doing these things to make real and lasting change. Having a state authorizer for charter schools is part of that mix. In November, Georgia voters will have a chance to tell us what they think.