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Charter Schools - a Big Step Forward

Op-Ed on the Charter School amendment by Randy Evans, a partner at McKenna Long & Aldridge LLP.

Op-ed from Randy Evans, as reported in the Atlanta Business Journal.

Georgia stands at a crossroads. On the one hand, Georgia schools have made great progress toward better futures for Georgia’s children with better resources and stronger curricula. On the other hand, no one thinks that Georgia’s schools are anywhere close to where they need to be — especially in some areas where the schools are simply not getting the job done.

On Nov. 6, Georgians get to decide whether to go the slow route to better schools, or resume the jump-start for much more immediate progress through choice and competition.

Admittedly, for many parents, it is a distinction without a difference since their children’s schools are fine. For them, the Charter Amendment has no impact. Their children can continue at the same school with no impact. After all, charter schools present no risk to public school funding. No deduction can be made to any state funding of a local school system because of a charter school. Charter schools are funded outside of the normal education funding formula.

For others, however, denying a choice for a better school is a decision that can mean the difference between a life of constantly catching up or a life full of opportunity on a much more level playing field. Yet, this difference between the “haves” (with good schools) and the “have nots” (with failing schools) presents the core question behind the Charter School Amendment: Why would a state lock children into failing schools, denying them the choice or opportunity for a better life?

And, why would those responsible for creating the failed schools have the right to deny a choice for a school other than the failed schools they have produced or approved?

Yet, that is exactly what the Georgia Supreme Court did when it struck down Georgia’s Charter School law. It struck down the ability of parents and teachers to come together and seek a charter for a school from someone other than those responsible for creating failing schools.

Fortunately, the Georgia Supreme Court is not the final word. Now, Georgians have the opportunity to exercise the ultimate control on Nov. 6, and overrule the Georgia Supreme Court through an amendment to Georgia’s constitution to take back the right for parents to choose what is best for their own children.

The Charter School Amendment is straightforward. It asks:

Shall the Constitution of Georgia be amended to allow state or local approval of public charter schools upon the request of local communities?

Who would oppose such an amendment? The question is best answered by asking who would have the most to lose if parents and their children were given the option to opt out of failed schools. The answer is obvious.

Failing schools, and those responsible for creating them, do not want change. After all, if parents and children are given a choice, monopolies of political power that perpetuate unacceptable results lose power and credibility. It is only by eliminating choice and competition that bad results can continue to be the norm.

Year after year, many of Georgia’s children are failed by schools that leave them unable to compete in an increasingly competitive world. But that’s not the worst problem.

Teens who do not graduate high school are largely relegated to a lifetime of hardship, from limited employment opportunities as well as a high incidence of crime. Georgia’s prisons are overwhelmingly populated by men and women who did not graduate high school. Taxpayers pay for all of these societal ills, and they cost dearly.

Oddly, one of the principal arguments against the amendment has been that it threatens local control of schools. Yet, how much more local can government get than to allow parents and children to vote with their feet? The Charter School Amendment gives parents the choice to opt out of a failing school that happens to be the local public school.

Charter schools provide the ultimate local control — immediate control by parents of their children at the time they need it most without waiting another four years for the next election.

If Georgia’s schools were the best in the country, or even in the top 25 percent, the need might not be so great. But that is not the case — Georgia is in the bottom tier of states, especially when it comes to the ultimate measure of success — graduation rates.

According to the Governor’s Office of Student Achievement, state charter schools outperformed their local school districts in English, reading, science and Social Studies in 2011. In some areas, the gap between the only current choice and the charter school is startling. For example, the only state charter high school had a 95.8 percent graduation rate while its local district’s rate was 69.01 percent.

From Democratic Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel to Republican Gov. Nathan Deal, the answer is the same: Charter schools are a big step in the right direction. The Charter School Amendment helps make that happen.

Evans is a partner at McKenna Long & Aldridge LLP.

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