What “local control” means in the Peach State

On Election Day, Georgia voters will get to decide whether their state can authorize and oversee charter schools, a power that rests almost exclusively with locally elected school boards. Of course, school districts have urged Georgians to maintain the status quo by voting no on the constitutional amendment before them, contending that a new state bureaucracy would be unanswerable to their needs and concerns. But voters should consider what “local control” of public education has meant in the Peach State.

Voters should consider what “local control” of public education has meant in the Peach State.

Fundamentally, it has empowered most of the state’s larger school districts to keep charter growth (and, therefore, school choice) moderate at best. Nowhere has that been more evident than in Gwinnett County, Georgia’s largest school system (and the thirteenth largest in the nation) where charter students make up less than 1 percent of the public school population.

Perhaps Gwinnett was on Republican state Senator Fran Millar’s mind when he wrote recently in the Atlanta-Journal Constitution that “there are areas of this state where local school boards will not approve any charter school.” But Gwinnett is hardly alone, and that is why voters should say yes to a charter commission independent of Georgia-style “local control.” Promising charter providers shouldn’t have to depend only on the whims of a recalcitrant school board.

Consider that:

  • In Gwinnett County, the 1,500 students that presently attend charter schools make up 0.9 percent of the total public school enrollment of the county school district’s 163,000 pupils (the statewide average is 4.6 percent). The county school board presently oversees just three charter schools.
  • The state’s third largest county, DeKalb, added just two charter schools in the past five years.
  • Two of Georgia’s relatively larger counties, Cobb and Richmond, have the same number of charter schools they had five years ago (six and two respectively).

Ten other states have established their own state commissions to authorize charter schools because they recognized that leaving authorization exclusively in the hands of school boards would stymie growth in the charter sector. Georgia lawmakers formed such a panel themselves four years ago, but the Gwinnett school board, among others, successfully sued the commission out of existence (hence the constitutional amendment before voters now).

Gwinnett schools Superintendent Alvin Wilbanks says he has nothing against charter schools, a disingenuous statement, considering he also has complained that the state’s plan is to “privatize, defund, and dismantle public education.” He and other superintendents in Georgia appear interested mostly in preserving their near-monopolies under the guise of democratic local control.

That’s what this really comes down to: control. If a local group of educators or parents wants to start a new school with a particular pedagogical focus, should the local school board have veto power? If a minority of parents want a peach-flavored school, should the publicly elected school board (representing the majority of voters) get to say, “Sorry, everyone gets pecan”? Or do we provide rights, within our democracy, for minority views, too?

The most “local” kind of school is one where the decision-making rests at the school level, not in some faraway district office. In other words, in charter schools, which represent the kind of “local control” to which the Peach State should aspire.

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