Voters making education more local

Charter school supporters can claim victory in at least one high-profile ballot initiative (Georgia) and perhaps one other (Washington) but each state has a different story to tell—and lessons to teach.

In what may arguably be defined as a landslide, 59 percent of Georgia voters empowered the state to create an independent commission to authorize charter schools. But that margin of victory doesn’t even tell the whole story.

Consider Gwinnett County, the state’s largest school district, which has allowed only three charter schools within its boundaries and which filed the original lawsuit that ultimately killed Georgia’s previous independent authorizer (hence the constitutional amendment). Gwinnett superintendent Alvin Wilbanks once said that the question before voters would only empower the state to “privatize, defund, and dismantle public education.” But 63 percent of the county’s voters disagreed with him and said yes to the amendment.

While Georgia can claim a landslide, charter advocates in the Evergreen State may be getting by with a squeaker.

The state’s largest counties followed suit, including Fulton County (where 66 percent of voters said yes) and DeKalb County (64 percent). This highlights the arrogance of Wilbanks and other district superintendents, who warned that the amendment would only diminish “local control” of public education. An overwhelming number of citizens decided that the most “local” kind of school is one where the decision-making power rests at the school level, not in some faraway district office that holds veto power over all public education.

The same can’t be said for Washington State, however. While Georgia can claim a landslide, charter advocates in the Evergreen State may be getting by with a squeaker.

At last count, Washington’s Initiative 1240 was winning 51-49 percent, indicating that Seattle and other cities may finally see charter schools (Washington was previously the largest state without a charter law). But as elections officials were busy counting votes, the tally in Seattle was looking grim: 51 percent of King County voters had said no to the proposal, according to the latest count.

A victory is a victory, but Washington’s charter initiative may narrowly pass despite the fact that proponents outspent opponents by $10 million (Washington has asked voters to approve charter schools three times before, with voters saying no every time).

With such a polarized electorate, advocates and charter operators—should they win—will have plenty of work ahead to assure voters that the schools they plan to open over the next five years will add quality, innovation, and variety to a public-education landscape that has done little to accommodate pluralism.

And pluralism is what emerged on Tuesday—even in states with far different stories to tell. Whatever transpires in the years to come, voters in Georgia and Washington worked to make public education much more local.

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