ATLANTA — The increasingly bitter fight in Georgia over a constitutional amendment to allow more state charter schools isn’t likely to play out in expensive television ads before the Nov. 6 referendum.
Instead, the two sides are settling into an old-fashioned ground war. But call it a grassroots effort and you just might draw the ire of activists on both sides.
That’s because each camp wants exclusive claim to being a “people’s campaign,” while casting the other side as a mouthpiece for big power players.
“The opposition comes primarily from the education bureaucracy, those folks who see this as a threat to their power and control,” said Mark Peevy, executive director for Families for Better Public Schools, the political action committee backing the amendment, referring to state Superintendent John Barge and several professional organizations for teachers and education authorities.
Tom Upchurch, who is leading the opposition campaign “Vote SMART! Georgia,” counters that proponents, including Republican Gov. Nathan Deal, are pushing “a state power grab” with the financial backing of for-profit companies that run schools for taxpayer money.
Behind the back and forth is a nuanced policy argument that doesn’t fit easily onto a bumper sticker or a direct mail piece, because the argument isn’t actually over whether to allow charter schools.
State law gives local school boards, which are elected bodies, the power to grant or deny applications for independent school charters. A potential operator that is denied can appeal to the Georgia Board of Education, a body of gubernatorial appointees.
The constitutional change would allow the state to establish a separate panel of political appointees to issue charters to private operators. Prospective statewide charter operators would apply directly to the new panel. Local operators would still start with their local school board, but then effectively have two appeal paths.
The state previously had its own commission to grant charters, but the Georgia Supreme Court ruled it was unconstitutional. That led Deal to push for an amendment that would override the court.
A major plank of the opposition’s argument is that a commission isn’t necessary. Georgia has more than 200 charter schools already, including those authorized by the commission that the state Supreme Court nixed.
Proponents answer that parents and students would benefit from as many educational options as possible.
Both sides acknowledge the complicated nature of the dispute.
“We recognize that there are plenty of quality public school systems,” said Jason O’Rouke, political director for the proponents. “But we recognize that they don’t work for all students.”
Sen. Vincent Ford, an Atlanta Democrat who opposes the amendment, said, “We don’t oppose charter schools. We support local control of our schools, of all public schools.”
Proponents have a significant financial advantage. O’Rouke said Families for a Better Georgia plans to spend “between $1 million and $2 million.” That’s not enough for television, but plenty for targeted direct mail pieces and printed material that will be distributed in part by parents and children in existing charter schools.
He said they will target Democratic and Republican areas. Of note will be urban, mostly minority enclaves where parents are likely to want more choices and rural districts where local lawmakers and education officials are most reticent to see the school landscape change fundamentally.
O’Rouke said he has lined up strategists who could quickly produce television spots and secure time slots “if the money materialized.”
Through Aug. 22, the committee had raised almost $490,000, including $250,000 from Alice Walton of the Wal-Mart ownership family and $100,000 from K-12 Inc., a for-profit charter operator. The committee’s September report was not yet public Friday afternoon.
A second political action committee, an arm of Americans for Prosperity, had registered with the state but no financial activity was available as of Friday. Americans for Prosperity was founded by the conservative businessmen David and Charles Koch of Koch Industries.
Through this week, Vote SMART! had raised about $101,000, according to its latest disclosures. That’s not even a quarter of what it takes to buy a week of TV ads across the state.
Upchurch acknowledged the money disadvantage, but he embraces the built-in organizational heft of the groups lined up in opposition. Among them: the Georgia Parent Teacher Association; multiple teachers’ professional associations; and separate state organizations for school administrators, local superintendents and local school boards. They are joined by the legislature’s Black Caucus and several civil rights organizations.
He said their effort will target those rural communities where existing public schools are iconic local institutions and major employers.
Both sides hope to use speakers’ circuits and public forums to get out their messages.
Barge, the state superintendent, opposes the amendment but has said he will not actively campaign. But what that means is up for dispute. His office said he will answer direct questions and not shy away from his regular public appearances and travels across Georgia.
Proponents next week will tout a statewide tour by the former Minnesota state senator recognized as the author of the nation’s first charter law. Democrat Ember Reichgott Junge will appear in Savannah, Macon, Atlanta and Columbus.