Amendment I, referred to as the “Charter School Amendment,” is the most recognized and most controversial of the two amendments on the ballot. This amendment is designed to allow the General Assembly the power to establish policies which ensure that the State of Georgia will offer and fund a free public education to all secondary school students prior to college. This amendment even gives the General Assembly itself the power to create special schools, including state approved charter schools, whenever a need should arise.
The amendment comes as a response to the May 16, 2011 decision of the Supreme Court of Georgia in the case Gwinnett County School District v. Cox. The Court, in a split four to three decision, ruled that the Georgia Charter Commission Act passed by the General Assembly in 2008 was unconstitutional. The Act established a commission authorized to approve public charter schools for grades Kindergarten through Twelfth Grade as “special schools”.
Justice Carol Hunstein, writing for the majority, concluded that Article VIII, Section V, Paragraph VII(a) only gives local school boards the power to establish or create public primary and secondary schools. This singular authority of the local school boards has existed since it was drafted into the Georgia Constitution of 1877. The Court further held that charter schools did not fit the definition “special schools”. Of course, the Georgia Constitution has been amended a number of times since the 1877 version, and in 1966, the Georgia Constitution of 1945 was amended once again to allow the General Assembly to create special schools. The Court reasoned that the intent was not to create public primary and secondary schools to compete with the local school boards, but to create schools such as vocational schools and schools for the physically disabled.
Constitutional Amendment I will rewrite the Georgia Constitution to allow for the creation of state approved charter schools and ultimately the formation of a Charter School Commission under the authority to the General Assembly. To accomplish this, the amendment contains four parts. The first part gives the General Assembly the authority to establish policies and create funding to provide a free public education for Kindergarten through Twelfth Grade. This provision supersedes the local school boards authority to establish policy for education.
The second section is the most interesting provision as it has very little to do with the creation of charter schools. It provides that the General Assembly can combine two or more local school districts into a county or area school district. This consolidation would only take effect if approved by the voters of the affected districts. In essence, it allows the General Assembly and the voters to reshape school districts thought the state.
The third section of the amendment gets to the real heart of overcoming the majority opinion in Gwinnett County School District v. Cox. What is significant about this third section is that it adds public charter schools to the definition of “special schools”. Further, it gives the General Assembly power to approve a public charter school. Local school boards would be permitted to participate in the public charter school. However, there can be no tax levied nor any bonded debt incurred without the approval of the voters in that particular local school district. The state is authorized to fund the approved charter school, however the funds cannot reduce the amount of funding that the state is required to provide for the local school district.
The fourth section forms the question which will appear on the November ballot for the voters to decide. There is much more to this amendment than merely allowing for the creation of charter schools. It has the potential to literally change the landscape and structure of the public education system in Georgia. It is important to consider all of these details and more when deciding how to cast your vote.