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.
So what if it was a legal technicality? Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette has found a way to keep an incompetent Board of Education from doing lasting damage to Detroit’s 69,000 remaining public-school pupils: He said seven of the board’s eleven members were elected to geographic districts when they were supposed to serve at-large, the district’s enrollment having fallen below the threshold that allows representation by geography. He filed a lawsuit last week to unseat them, prompting editorial writers in the Motor City to ask why he didn’t complain last year when school board elections put those members in office. But they know why: Schuette filed his lawsuit the day after the dysfunctional board assumed greater control of the district from a weakened “emergency manager.” The A.G. had taken his own emergency action.
There is ample justification. For years, Michigan had limited the board’s powers by designating an emergency manager to oversee district spending. The board had nominal oversight over academics but lost that authority early last year when the legislature gave the emergency manager oversight over all school operations, together with the ability to tear up union contracts.
But it didn’t last. A voter registration group backed by the state’s public employee unions (teachers included, of course) gathered enough signatures to put the strengthened law up for a referendum vote this November. The state certified that ballot item last week, suspending the law pending voter approval and restoring the Detroit
Georgia voters are fortunate to experience a debate that’s dominated largely by policy wonks. In the fall, they’ll get to decide who has the power to authorize charter schools. The November ballot will ask whether the state and local school boards can share that responsibility. That question shines a spotlight on the issue of local control, and provides an opportunity to rethink what that means.
Citizens of the Peach State have this question before them because their state Supreme Court last year declared the Georgia Charter Schools Commission unconstitutional. Four of the seven justices ruled that only locally elected boards of education could authorize charters. The commission, an independent state panel, had authorized sixteen schools, and it did so over the objections of local boards.
Georgia voters are fortunate to experience a debate that’s dominated largely by policy wonks.
But if voters renew the state’s power to authorize charters (which I hope they will) they’ll do more than just re-establish the charter commission. They’ll be saying that local boards can’t be the only authority to say yes or no to charters. In essence, they’ll be re-affirming the concept of local control.
Voters last affirmed the constitutional language that governed public education in 1983—nine years before the nation saw the first charter school open in Minnesota and ten years before the Georgia Legislature established its first charter law. The legislature created the charter commission to secure another avenue for parents, educators, and organizations to
Who should control education? That’s the subject of a new study analyzing forty years of polling data assessing public opinions on education governance. Michigan State University researchers Rebecca Jacobsen and Andrew Saultz mostly examined survey results from the often-cited annual Gallup poll to conclude that “the public often expresses strong support for local control.”
Who should control education?
Gallup poll questions aren’t known for nuance and complexity. So it’s no surprise that the conclusions from this study are just as simplistic.
Jacobsen and Saultz begin their report by carping that folks like Fordham’s Checker Finn say that school boards and current notions of local control have become antiquated in the twenty-first century. Reformers and policymakers, Jacobsen and Saultz argue, should realize that the public sees a role for federal and state governments in education, but not when it comes to local decision making.
But the authors suggest the only alternative to the status quo of “local decision making” is federal or state control. In fact, Finn has argued for a re-invention of local control, and more recently wrote in the journal National Affairs that enhanced levels of parental influence and choice have allowed new forms of local control to take root.
- Most states allow parents, educators, and organizations to establish and manage their own charter schools;
- The more recent proliferation of school choice – charters, vouchers, magnet schools, virtual schools, and the like – are beginning to fracture the school district monopoly; and
About the Editor
Director, Program on Parental Choice
Adam Emerson is the Thomas B. Fordham Institute’s school choice czar, directing the Institute’s policy program on parental choice and editing the Choice Words blog. He coordinates the Institute’s school choice-related research projects, policy analyses and commentaries on issues that include charter schools and public school choice along with school vouchers, homeschooling and digital learning.
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