ATLANTA - Voters will decide in November whether to change the Georgia Constitution to allow the state to create charter schools, after a hard-fought victory by Republican lawmakers on Monday.
The constitutional amendment would give the state power to establish charter schools over the objection of local school districts. It passed the Georgia Senate 40-16 after three weeks of behind-the-scenes dealing by Republican lawmakers to round up the required two-thirds majority in the chamber, which included courting at least two Democrats. The legislation passed the House 123-48 last month.
The proposal dominated much of the legislative session, stealing the spotlight from priorities including tax and criminal justice reform and the state budget. It divided not only Republicans and Democrats but also led to infighting within both parties.
Gov. Nathan Deal has pushed for the legislation and met personally with some lawmakers to persuade them support the bill. He is now encouraging voters to support the proposal.
"The General Assembly has acted wisely and courageously to give Georgians the choice to implement true local control: parental choice," Deal said in a prepared statement. "Starting a state-chartered school is not done easily or without lots of hard work, but we need a system that allows for this option."
The measure had some support from Democrats in the House, but the caucus was split on the issue. Senate Democrats held the issue hostage for weeks, forcing their GOP colleagues to exhibit a rare display of reaching across the aisle. Lobbyists also spent thousands of dollars on meals and gifts wooing lawmakers to vote for the constitutional amendment.
Four Democrats ultimately supported the measure: Sen. Hardie Davis of Augusta, Sen. Curt Thompson of Tucker, Sen. Steve Thompson of Marietta and Sen. George Hooks of Americus.
"I'm not going to try to keep them from doing something innovative," said Steve Thompson. "If this will do what they think it can, then I'm for it. I can't be against positive to happen in public education."
While Republicans stuck together, rural lawmakers needed coaxing to go along with an issue that is seen as largely centered in metro Atlanta.
The battle came after a May ruling from the Georgia Supreme Court outlawing the Georgia Charter Schools Commission. The state's highest court ruled the commission was illegally creating charter schools. The Legislature vowed to change state law to address the issue.
"What we're trying to do with these charter schools is put another tool in the tool box of parents or legal guardians if they feel they need to do something else," said state Sen. Ronnie Chance, one of the governor's floor leaders in the Senate and Republican from Tyrone. "We're talking about doing the right thing for our children."
Opponents said the state should not create charter schools when public school districts are facing $1 billion in state cuts and steep declines in local property tax revenue. Statewide groups representing school boards, school superintendents and teachers opposed the constitutional change and have promised public campaigns against the ballot referendum in hopes of getting voters to stop the constitutional amendment.
"It seems to me we should be less concerned about 16 state-created charter schools and more concerned about making sure our regular public schools have the funding that are necessary for them to educate the children of Georgia," said state Sen. Vincent Fort, a Democrat from Atlanta.
The bill's sponsor, House Speaker Pro Tem Jan Jones, has promised the state-created schools would not siphon money from cash-strapped school districts, but she has not said where the money would come from.
"We can't afford not to supply more educational opportunities to students," Jones told The Associated Press. "An educated workforce is the No. 1 criteria of international and national companies looking to locate in the state. How can we afford to accept the status quo?"
Charter schools receive public funding but are freed from regulations like class size and teacher pay schedules in exchange for promises of improved student performance.
Critics say the Supreme Court got it right - local school boards should have control over all public schools in their district, even charter schools. The constitutional amendment would strip that power away, critics said.
"Legislators and charter school operators seem to believe they can convince Georgia citizens to give up their control of local education dollars to a state charter authorizer," said Tim Callahan, spokesman for the Professional Association of Georgia Educators.
The Georgia Charter Schools Commission was created in 2008 by frustrated lawmakers who said local school boards were turning down charter school applications because they didn't like the competition. The commission began approving and funding charter schools over the objection of the local boards, sparking the lawsuit that eventually ended in the Supreme Court ruling.
Charter school supporters said the state should also be able to create charter schools because some local school boards are anti-charter school, which means children in those districts have fewer choices when it comes to public education.
"This was a victory for children, first and foremost," said Tony Roberts, head of the Georgia Charter Schools Association. "We are grateful that the voters will have the opportunity for the final say on this issue. Local voters are the most basic form of local control."