Several tea party activists have come out in support of the plan that would allow the state to impanel a new commission authorized to create and regulate independent charter schools.
The Savannah Tea Party, using money from a grant it won from a national tea party organization, has bought radio ads endorsing the plan. They echo the coalition of supporters, headlined by Gov. Nathan Deal, who say adding educational options in Georgia can do nothing but benefit children and families.
Yet activists in the Atlanta area oppose the measure. They frame the proposal as duplication and expansion of existing state power. That tracks the primary argument from the opposition VoteSmart coalition, which includes state Superintendent John Barge and most of Georgia’s professional education associations.
Both tea party camps say their position is rooted in tea party principles, like small government, local control and market competition.
“One of the biggest issues is parental involvement.” said Jeanne Seaver, who narrates the Savannah group’s radio ad urging voters to approve the amendment in Tuesday’s election. “Parents are the ultimate local control, and this will give them more opportunities for their children.”
Debbie Dooley, of the Atlanta Tea Party, said local school boards control charters now, with any applicant who is denied having the ability to appeal to the state Board of Education.
Adding the Georgia Charter Commission to the mix, with power to create certain schools without local oversight, is unnecessary, she said.
“There is no doubt about it, this expands government,” Dooley said. “There is no way you can read the job duties assigned to the commission and say it doesn’t expand power at the state level, and eventually cost us money.”
In Savannah, Seaver praised the idea of “competition among all schools.” That, she said, empowers parents as consumers and will force traditional public schools to improve.
Jack Staver of Woodstock, another opponent, argued it wouldn’t be fair competition. The biggest beneficiaries, he said, will be for-profit companies that could end up running schools in Georgia.
“The competition will be among those outside groups trying to get our money,” he said. “This is not about all kids. It’s about the few kids who might get to go to these schools. If our school system is broken, what are we doing to fix that?”
Varying details of the policy proposal can support either position. At the least, the divide highlights how complicated the charter proposal is and how a political philosophy isn’t always easy to apply on the ground.
Georgia lawmakers first created the State Charter Schools Commission in 2008, but the state Supreme Court struck down the panel, ruling the state constitution gives control of K-12 education to local school boards. In response, Deal and charter school supporters earlier this year pushed the amendment to specifically allow the kind of state commission the court jettisoned. An accompanying law, triggered only if the amendment passes, would re-establish the State Charter Schools Commission.
Charter schools that were created by the old commission remain open, as do scores of charter schools approved by local school boards. The proposal does not remove local boards from the process of approving charter schools with defined attendance zones, but it would allow the state to approve “special schools” — those with statewide attendance or some other characteristic justifying the distinction — without local input.
Local charter schools get state and local tax money. State approved charters would be financed entirely with state money, though opponents of the proposal note that it must come from general fund money that now can be distributed to local schools.
“There are good, reasonable people on both sides of this question,” Dooley said. “That’s what makes this so hard.”
Seaver noted the grant paying for the radio ads comes from the national Tea Party Patriots, a group that Dooley helped launch.
Bert Brantley, a spokesman for the proponents’ official campaign, welcomed the support from Savannah and other tea party favorites like former presidential candidate Herman Cain and talk radio host Neal Boortz.
“Some opponents are trying to use a conservative message to defeat a conservative cause,” he said. “There is some disagreement, but it just comes down to how much they’ve looked at the issue.
At the VoteSmart opposition camp, Jane Langley said, “Amendment 1 is about truth and trust. Our support is bipartisan, black and white, women and men, young and old, including many, many members of the tea party.”