Georgia voters have a chance to make education local again

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 establish schools that would be self-governing and accountable to the taxpayer but independent from the bureaucracy that traditionally governed public education.

The Democratic Party of Georgia has joined with local boards and other interests to convince voters that the ballot language is misleading and is an attempt by the state to override control of locally elected school boards. Their animosity to charters and choice is unsurprising. But if governance of public education ought to reside with the level of government closest and most responsive to the parent and taxpayer, as Georgia Chief Justice Carol Hunstein asserted in her opinion last year, the current resolution only attempts to preserve that conviction.

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