Charter schools have existed in Georgia for 17 years. If a group wants to start a charter school, it brings its petition before a local school board, which will approve or deny the request. If rejected, the group can go to the State Board of Education, but if the charter is granted, the school cannot receive local tax funding, only state and federal funds.
There was a third route: The Georgia Charter Schools Commission. But in 2011, the Georgia Supreme Court ruled this commission unconstitutional. The result was the drafting of Amendment 1 to the Georgia State Constitution.
Amendment 1 would give a state commission the authority to approve charters. A commission of individuals appointed by the governor, lieutenant governor and state House speaker could approve a charter school petition that had been denied by a local school board and the state board.
Rich Thompson is a parent of two daughters. He and his family live in Southwest Atlanta. Every school day, he drives past the neighborhood school located half a mile from his home to transport his daughters to two charter schools more than 10 miles away. He supports Amendment 1.
Thompson said he tells other parents that his daughters, like their kids, are unique and that they need a school system tailored "to their needs, and not the needs of a system."
He said his daughters are thriving in the charter school environment, which he believes is because it is a "culture of higher achievement," versus that of his neighborhood school.
Thompson said that he tried to help change his neighborhood school, asking questions about spending priorities and advocating for academic rigor. But even while serving on the local school council, he kept hitting roadblocks. "I saw how gridlocked the system was when I saw parents who just wanted to make the system better just turned away at every turn," he said. "It only seemed to matter when I pulled my child out of that system and put her in a public charter school."
In his daughters' charter schools, Thompson said, "the principal is very attuned to the needs of students and parents, and he listens to what we have to say. ... That is the difference that I see in a public charter school that I'd really like to see more parents get."
Opponents of Amendment 1 say charter interests will be able to do an "end-around" to the established school boards. If a local school board denies the charter petition, the petitioner would simply go to the state commission and ask, they say.
They also agree with their counterparts in Washington who say charters siphon money away from traditional public schools, especially at a time when funding is tight.
But even among those who support charters, there are those who oppose this amendment, because they say it will take authority from elected officials and put it in the hands of commission appointees.
The Georgia PTA, which supports charter schools, is opposed to Amendment 1.
Karen Hallacy is the legislative chair for the Georgia PTA. She said the PTA supports school choice, but that "Amendment 1 is not about school choice."
"This is about creating a bureaucracy at the state level that is not accountable to any taxpayer, that they can authorize schools where there hasn't been a demand for them, and siphon funds away from schools," said Hallacy.
She also pointed out that parental involvement, one of the foundations of charter schools, is not part of the proposed amendment. Nor is there a requirement for certified teachers in the state-sanctioned charter schools in Amendment 1, she said.
Hallacy said, "Follow the money and understand that the people who are pushing this amendment are not the people who understand education. It is the people who stand to gain financially from it, the for-profit organizations that are concerned more with their bottom line than the education of the child."
The amendment has become a lightning rod in the state. Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal supports it. Georgia's state school superintendent, John Barge, does not.
To complicate matters further, a Dalton teacher and an Atlanta minister have filed a lawsuit claiming the wording of the ballot question is "purposely misleading."
Thompson said there is "nothing misleading whatsoever" in the amendment, and that he wants other parents to have the "marvelous experience" his family has in their charter schools.
Hallacy agrees that there are ways to improve public education, but she said this amendment is not one of them.
"This is not about education," said Hallacy. "This is about money and power, and people should vote against this."