The crucial education debates in Georgia and New Jersey this year haven't all centered around money. To a great extent, they have centered around power: Who has the power to create new charter schools?
Both states are led by Republican governors who favor the expansion of the publicly funded, privately run schools. But they seem to be going in opposite directions.
Legislators in Georgia voted recently to make it easier for the state to approve new charter schools, regardless of whether local authorities want them or not. Their measure awaits voter approval. In New Jersey, the legislature is considering a measure to slow down the state's approval of charters, by requiring local endorsement of each charter application.
The New Jersey measure still requires passage by the Senate, where it has yet to be introduced, but if successful, charter experts say it would represent an unusual direction for charter school legislation.
"I don't know of any states that have gone the way New Jersey is going," says Bryan Hassel, an expert on charter schools and co-director of Public Impact, an educational consulting company.
In New Jersey, advocates of local control say the legislation was driven in part by recent charter applications from private operators seeking approval for what some deem "boutique charters,' such as one that would have offered dual-language Chinese programs. "Local input will help ensure that the charter schools that are created fit the needs of the community," Democratic Assemblyman Patrick Diegnan, a sponsor of the bill and chair of the Education Committee, said in a statement.
Charter school advocates say that requiring local approval for each charter will cripple the growth of the movement.
Mike Yaple, a spokesman for the New Jersey School Boards Association, which supports local approval, says it's a question of funding. The state, which authorizes charter schools in New Jersey, requires that districts pay charters 90 percent of the total per-pupil funding for each student who attends a charter.
New Jersey's funding formula gives more state money to districts with a lower property-tax base, meaning that lower-income districts, which have traditionally been home to more of the state's charter schools, would typically be required to put less local money into charters than well-heeled suburban districts.
While Governor Chris Christie hasn't taken a position on the legislation, he questions whether affluent suburbs are the best places for new charters. Christie backs legislation that would make it easier for more charter schools to be authorized, but he sees the non-traditional schools as more of an urban option. "Where the public school system is working, by and large, choice isn't as much of an issue," says Christie spokesman Kevin Roberts.
Conversions vs. startups
A concern about "boutique charters" hasn't been driving the debate in Georgia. There, it's been a question of so-called "conversion charters" versus startup charters. But the issue of state vs. local control has been at the center of the discussion.
Conversion charter schools are traditional public schools that have been converted to charter status by a majority of teachers and parents in the school. Start-ups are new schools created by private individuals or groups, such as national charter operators.
Until 2008, nearly all charter schools in Georgia were approved by local school districts. Those districts had a tendency to approve more applications from conversion charters than startups. Charter school advocates believe that those preferences were limiting charter growth and innovation. "Startup charters usually try to fill a unique niche that you just don't normally find in regular schools," says Representative Edward Lindsey.
In 2008, he and other Republican legislators proposed the creation of a state charter schools commission that could approve applications denied by local school boards. Those schools would be funded fully by the state, but the state would then deduct funding from districts whose students attended the charters in rough equivalence to the amount of local funding per student.
In establishing the Georgia Charter Schools Commission, the state joined a small but growing number of states that have moved to independent statewide chartering boards. In the 2010-11 academic school year, three states adopted boards like the one that was created in Georgia.
The commission was tasked with giving charter applications a rigorous review. "The goal was not to open up a floodgate of charter schools," Lindsey says, "but to release the pressure valve."
But releasing that pressure caused enrollment at conversion and startup charters to spike by 42 percent in the first two years of the commission's existence, while the state also approved several school districts converting to charter systems.
Decision by referendum
The commission came to an end last year, though, when Georgia's Supreme Court ruled that it was unconstitutional. A court challenge failed, and charter advocates turned their thoughts to the legislature. Ultimately, many of the same lawmakers who had introduced the legislation authorizing the commission in 2008, including Lindsey, offered a constitutional amendment that needed a two-thirds majority in both chambers of the legislature and voter approval to make the commission constitutionally sound. It won legislative passage and will go before the voters in November.
Mark Peevy, the commission's former executive director, brought together disparate groups such as the Georgia Charter School Association, Michelle Rhee's national StudentsFirst, and the Georgia branches of the Chamber of Commerce and the free-market Americans for Prosperity, to form the Brighter Georgia Education Coalition in supporting the legislation.
"There was a full-court press like nothing we've ever seen in education supporting this," says Angela Palm, legislative director for the Georgia School Boards Association, which opposed the measure.
Palm says the new system, which would create a separate funding stream in the state budget for approved charters, could lead to less funding for traditional public schools. "The state is underfunding education, has been doing it for years, and wants to create a dual school system," she says.
Lindsey insists that decreasing funding for traditional schools isn't the intention of the new plan. "We have an obligation to educate 1.7 million students in the state," he says. "Charter schools are not a silver bullet, but one tool in the toolbox."
Still, he anticipates that both sides will wage a "spirited campaign" in anticipation of the November vote. Palm says her group will work with the state's teacher associations, PTA and school superintendents' association to convince voters that the measure would put further stress on school districts that have already been forced to make do with less. For the Brighter Georgia Education Coalition, the goal is to convince voters, particularly outside Atlanta, that the amendment would lead to more options and improved quality. "We really emphasize how these school options make the overall public school system better," Peevy says.