Charter Schools Get Another Chance at the Ballot

Multi-year fights over education reform will be on the ballot in Georgia and Washington.
by | November 6, 2012

For full election coverage and analysis, go to Governing's 2012 Election Center.

Georgia voters will look to fix their state’s charter school system on Election Day, while Washington residents will decide whether to allow charter schools for the first time.

The Georgia Charter Schools Amendment is the culmination of a multi-year battle over whether the state should have the right to authorize a charter school against the wishes of a local school district. The state legislature created the Georgia Charter School Commission in 2008 as a state-level body with the authority to enter agreements with charter school operators who could not secure an agreement with the local school board. But in May 2011, the Georgia Supreme Court ruled that the commission was unconstitutional, which led to the closure of 16 schools that had been approved by the commission but opposed by local school districts.

The constitutional amendment on this year’s ballot would authorize the state legislature to create state-authorized charter schools, which would be overseen by the state board of education, essentially reinstating the former charter school commission’s authority through a different means.

The amendment has the support of a majority of the state legislature and Gov. Nathan Deal, who signed a bill that funds state-sponsored charter schools if the amendment passes. It has been opposed by a broad coalition of education groups, including teachers unions and the state parent-teacher association, who argue it would take away local control of education.

Polling indicates the amendment should have enough support to pass: a September Sand Mountain Communications poll found 50 percent of voters support the measure, 25 percent oppose it and 25 percent are undecided.

Meanwhile, for the fourth time since 1996, charter school advocates are trying to legalize the schools in Washington state, which remains one of the few states that does not allow the independent public schools.

Washington Initiative 1240 would allow 40 charter schools to open in the state over the next five years. The charter schools could be approved by either a state commission or the local school board. They would be open to all students and receive the level of per-pupil funding that traditional public schools receive. The expected administrative costs to the state are estimated around $3 million.

National charter school advocates have come out to support the measure, while groups that often oppose charter schools, such as the state teachers union, have opposed it. Republican gubernatorial candidate Robert McKenna says he supports the initiative, while his Democratic opponent Jay Inslee says he opposes it.

Though Washington voters have rejected charter schools on three previous occasions, polling suggests they might have changed their minds. A September Elway Poll found 47 percent of voters support the initiative and 38 percent opposed it, with 16 percent undecided.

Elsewhere in education reform initiatives: South Dakota and Idaho voters will decide whether to affirm or reverse recent state laws that put significant restrictions on teachers’ collective bargaining rights. The state teachers union in both states organized the referendum efforts.

The South Dakota law institutes performance pay and bans teacher tenure. The Idaho law also forbids teacher tenure, and also removes issues like class size and workload from the collective bargaining table.

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