[Editor's note: the following op-ed column was contributed by Michael Thurmond, former state labor commissioner.]
From the presidential candidates to state legislative candidates, almost everyone running for office in Georgia this year is claiming that this election is about three things-jobs, jobs and jobs. If improving our economy and increasing the number of good jobs for the future is an important issue for you, I suggest that one of the most important votes you will cast this year is the one on Constitutional Amendment #1.
Proponents of this amendment, which would create a state charter school commission, have tried to convince Georgians, including our business leaders, that the amendment will be good for business. They claim that increasing the number of charter schools in the state will help improve our education system.
As one who spent many years observing the direct correlation between a good education system and good jobs, I am afraid I cannot buy the argument that more charter schools will raise the level of academic performance throughout the state.
To start, there is no statistical evidence that charter schools perform on average any better than traditional public schools. Some have helped improve student performance; others have not.
Additionally, this amendment is not about having or not having charter schools. It is about the state approving charter school applications that local communities have turned down. There are more than 100 locally approved charter schools already open in Georgia, and there will likely be many more in the future-with or without changing our constitution.
At its core, this amendment is about one incredibly important issue — how to provide the best education possible for all Georgia students so they will be well-prepared to continue their education in college or technical school to gain the skills they will need to be successful in our rapidly changing world.
For several decades, business leaders of this state have been some of the biggest boosters and champions of our public schools. They have recognized the crucial role of our public schools in preparing our workforce. They have understood that destabilizing our public schools-in which 90 percent of our students are educated-would make it extremely difficult to train the skilled workers they will need in the future.
Proponents of this amendment are trying to convince voters that adding a new system of charter schools will not adversely affect our public schools, but the evidence (and common sense) says otherwise. If this amendment passes, nearly one-half billion dollars will be drained from our public schools over the next decade. Surely, this cannot help public schools that are already suffering from a decade of budget “austerity cuts.” Any good businessman or woman knows that a business can function at maximum capacity only so long with fewer and fewer resources.
In addition, losing additional state funding could necessitate local tax increases, which might harm local economies. Keep in mind, also, that local businesses and local schools are inextricably linked as vital parts of their community. Small businesses help sponsor sports and other extracurricular activities, and parents shop for their children’s clothes and school supplies at local merchants that support the schools. Each sector is dependent on the other.
The bottom line is that Georgia’s economy will not get stronger until the state’s political leaders decide to focus their complete attention on how to improve the education of all children, rather than trying to find new and risky ways for a few students here and there to “escape” from their current schools. That is avoiding rather than solving a problem.
Amendment #1 on the November 6 ballot is bad business and bad for business. If you want to help strengthen Georgia’s economy now and in the future, I urge you to vote “NO” on Constitutional Amendment #1.