The Associated Press
ATLANTA -- Now that Georgia voters have approved a constitutional amendment affirming the state's authority to create special public schools, attention has shifted to putting the new policy in action.
The amendment's passage, by a margin of 58 percent to 42 percent, triggers a separate law re-establishing a seven-person Georgia Charter Schools Commission. That law goes into effect Jan. 1. The original commission was created in 2008, but a 2010 state Supreme Court ruling eliminated it. Tuesday's election effectively overruled the court's interpretation that the Constitution gives control of K-12 public schools to local school boards.
The state Board of Education will choose the members from nominations submitted by the state's top elected officials. All of the nominees must have at least a bachelor's degree.
Gov. Nathan Deal, who headlined the list of supporters pushing the charter schools amendment, said his office began vetting potential nominees for the new commission on Wednesday. House Speaker David Ralston and Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle said they will be ready with their names as well.
The governor will propose a slate for three seats. The speaker and lieutenant governor will have two each.
Deal said this week that he is pleased the amendment passed. He said the amendment and the new law puts education policy where he believes it needs to be. "I don't see any other constitutional amendments out there" for the administration to push, he said.
The commission could begin its work as early as February, meaning new charter schools it creates could open for the 2013-14 school year.
Current law gives local school boards the power to grant or deny applications from operators that want to run the independent schools. The state Board of Education can override the local decision. Charter schools receive public money but are generally free from the rules and regulations of traditional public schools.
Under the new system, a prospective operator proposing a school with a "defined attendance zone" like a traditional neighborhood school will still apply to a local school board. The new commission will hear appeals of those decisions.
More importantly, applicants for a state charter could bypass local school boards altogether. To do so, they would either have to propose a school with a statewide attendance zone or successfully argue that their proposed model warrants the elevated status. The law only outlines the "special characteristics" of a state charter school, giving the commission wide latitude to make the distinction.
The Board of Education could override the commission's decision on state charter schools.
It remains to be seen exactly how the staff support for the commission will play out. State Superintendent John Barge was the most high-profile opponent of the constitutional amendment. The new law states that the commission must be established "in collaboration with" his Department of Education.
Barge said Friday that he has not had any conversations with board members or anyone from Deal's office about re-starting the commission.
Barge argued that a new commission was unnecessary, given that the state board already can override a local board's denial of a charter application. The superintendent and many professional educators' associations also argued that the state charters will siphon money from existing schools.
Mark Peevy, who served as executive director of the original commission, said he would be willing to serve again but does not know whether he will play a role.
Bert Brantley, a campaign for the amendment supporters, said after the outcome Tuesday night, "This is not really a sea change in education policy. It will offer another option for parents and another tool for Georgia's education system."
Brantley said he did believe the new process, when it's in place, will put to rest a key argument of some of the amendment opponents: that Georgia will be overrun with for-profit companies that compete directly with public schools.
Some for-profit school management firms already are involved in existing charter schools, and some of the companies contributed money to the campaign advocating for the amendment.
But, Brantley said, "We have local communities that are happy with their public schools. The demand simply will not be there in those places."