Charter School Bill Splits Southwest Atlanta Lawmakers

The contentious issue of charter schools could impact five such southwest Atlanta educational institutions.

The most hard-fought piece of legislation to come through the state Capitol this year has split Cascade's delegates to the gold dome.

House Resolution 1162 could give charter school boards the option to bypass local school boards and get their permission to operate those from the state of Georgia. But both supporters and opponents of the resolution paint it as almost a life-and-death struggle for the charter school movement.

Resolution "1162 continues to be much broader than it needs to be," said opponent state Rep. Kathy Ashe (D-Atlanta), for giving the Legislature the power to exclude local officials from chartering decisions.

Charter schools are public schools, receive state and local public money, and must follow federal school laws such as the ones that mandate providing for students with special needs. 

But they are nonprofit corporations run by their own boards rather than elected local school boards, and collect outside donations and grants. Some very heavily encourage parental involvement. In higher grades, some charters emphasize a subject, such as science.

Southwest Atlanta is home to five charter elementaries: Atlanta Preparatory Academy, Kindezi, KIPP STRIVE Academy, KIPP Ways, and University Community Academy.

The latest version of 1162 says state-chartered schools would get state funds, but it is silent on local money.  That worries some rural Republicans and urban Democrats, who think charters may drain one or both pots of money away from underfunded traditional public schools. It's been years, noted several legislators during debate on the bill, since public schools received all the dollars they're theoretically due under the state's funding formula.

Resolution supporters say parents deserve the choice to send children to charters, especially where traditional schools are underperfoming.

But charters aren't perfect either. University Community, like several of its traditional neighbors, was one of the schools implicated in the Atlanta Public Schools CRCT cheating scandal.

In a Feb. 8 vote, the resolution failed to get the 120 supermajority of votes it needs. It requires all those votes because it's technically an amendment to the state Constitution, so requires three-fourths of the Legislature to approve it. And that's even before it must pass a statewide referendum.

But supporters are trying agin on that first step. They will twist some arms and put the resolution up for another vote in the coming weeks.

In the vote, State Reps. Ralph Long and Sheila Jones, who both represent part of Southwest Atlanta, voted for 1162. Reps. Kathy Ashe, Tyrone BrooksRoger Bruce and Elly Dobbs voted against. All are Democrats.

"This is not whether we're for or against children," said state Rep. Roger Bruce, D-Atlanta. "I'm a strong advocate for charter schools," he said,  "[but]  I'm against it because the bill does not do what people are saying they want it to do."

State senators will only take up the bill if the state House passes it first.

Over in the Senate, state Sen. Vincent Fort, D-Atlanta, is one of the top sponsors of an ethics bill, Senate Bill 315, that would have the state's top judges name members of the ethics watchdog agency. Right now, the governor names the members of the agency that is supposed to investigate ethics and campaign finance violations of elected officials.

Fort is also a top co-sponsor of bills that provide benefits to veterans like tax and tuition breaks. Those are a part of a larger package of bills drawn up by state Senate Democrats that would make many changes, such as reinstating a family income cap for HOPE scholarship eligibility, and creating the state health-care exchange newly-mandated federal law.

However, in the Republican-dominated state Legislature, none of the bills are likely to move far.

Anna Varela February 14, 2012 at 01:11 PM
Does the Southwest Atlanta community need more charter schools? What do you think?
M Jackson February 14, 2012 at 06:59 PM
Not sure. Perhaps we need to have more awareness and support of the ones we have. I always hear about these long waiting lists but I couldn't name them all if asked. I think people get enthralled with the wonderment of a charter school but they essentially are meant to serve (in a more interest targeted way) the same population as your neighborhood school.
Carol J February 15, 2012 at 03:24 PM
Does the start already fully honor its funding commitment to regular neighborhood public schools? If not, this bill should surely not be allowed to pass. not anti-charter here, just PRO-neighborhood school.
Carol J February 15, 2012 at 03:28 PM
whoops, meant "state"


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