While there is much to like about charter schools, particularly their emphasis on parental involvement, the primary problem with this amendment is that it will very likely do much more than its supporters acknowledge, and much of what it does could be harmful — not just to public schools, but to entire communities. By establishing a mechanism for the state to approve charter schools that are not supported by local school systems, the amendment can help divide communities and decrease the role of the local public schools as important social centers.
What the supporters of this amendment do not seem to understand is that a community’s schools are much more than buildings in which children learn to read and write, add and subtract, and become familiar with history, science, and other fields of study.
A COMMUNITY’S schools, particularly in rural areas, are often the cultural and recreational centers of the community. They are where people vote, where they spend crisp autumn Friday nights watching their sons and daughters and grandsons and granddaughters playing in the band or running for a touchdown. Schools are where the community gathers to watch the drama club’s production of The Music Man or Oklahoma. Schools are where several generations of families gather to hear their graduates’ names called as they walk across the auditorium stage to shake the principal’s hand, take their diploma and flip their tassels from one side of their “mortarboards” to the other. In short, the local school is often the social center of the community.
The proponents of changing the constitution say their intention is only to provide greater school choice for parents whose local school boards have refused to give them any other choice except the local, traditional public schools. Who can argue with the premise that having a choice seems preferable to not having one? However, the difficulty in making almost any decision in a democracy is deciding whose choice takes preference.
SOMETIMES, for the good of the community as a whole, some parents will not be given their first choice of attendance zones, bus routes, teachers, or types of lunches. And sometimes, some parents would prefer a different type of curriculum or teaching philosophy. Local school systems understand that they cannot please all of their parents all of the time. They can only try.
By overriding a community’s decision concerning what is best for the school system (and community) as a whole, a state charter school commission could put into motion a series of events that eventually might be harmful both to the remaining public schools (and students) and the entire community. Here is a possible scenario:
A group of 200 parents petition the local school board to grant them a charter to start a high school for boys only with a mandatory ROTC program, military uniforms, and a strong concentration on science, mathematics and engineering. The school board, citing numerous concerns, including transportation, duplication of services (the current high school has an intensive concentration on STEM subjects), and shortage of funds, denies the application, which is overturned on appeal by the state charter school commission.
ONE EFFECT is that the current high school will lose both students and funding, and the loss in state funds will be greater than the savings for having fewer students. This means that the current students and teachers in the public school will feel the effects of having fewer resources almost immediately (or local taxpayers will feel the effect in higher taxes). In the long term, however, the results could be even more serious.
As the commission grants state charters to more and more schools, the cost of these schools will grow immensely (State Schools Superintendent John Barge estimates that the cost could be more than $430 million over the next decade). This will leave fewer state dollars for traditional public schools, which could cause local school systems to have to reduce funding for “frills” such as music and sports programs, just so they can keep the doors open for 180 days per year and class sizes within the reasonable range. Since it is already apparent that the state’s political leaders have no intention of restoring all of the “austerity cuts” of the previous decade, it is no stretch of the imagination to believe that they would eventually make the decision that traditional public schools should be able to educate their students for the same per-pupil cost as the state charter schools. They will “forget” to point out that many of the charter schools offer fewer services, such as transportation, hot lunches, marching bands and competitive sports programs.
YES, choice is a good thing, but every choice has consequences. The consequences of approving Constitutional Amendment No. 1 could eventually be empty stages, quiet band rooms, silent and dark athletic fields, and far less unified communities. If you want your schools to remain a vital component of your community, please vote “No” on Amendment No. 1.
Jesse Bradley is the retired superintendent of the Griffin-Spalding County Public Schools and former superintendent of Tattnall County Public Schools.