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Georgia Schools Chief Opposes Charter Ballot Measure

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Georgia voters will decide in November whether to approve a constitutional amendment to create a state-level commission that can authorize charter schools. And the state's schools chief wants them to vote "no."

John Barge, the state's elected state school superintendent, issued a statement Tuesday saying he opposes the measure, which was placed on the ballot through the vote of the state legislature earlier this year. In taking that stance, Barge, a Republican voted into office in 2010, is bucking a lot of elected officials in his party, including Gov. Nathan Deal, who supports the measure, and Republican state lawmakers, who control the Georgia statehouse.

The ballot measure would re-establish a statewide commission that would have the power to approve charters, even over the objections of local school districts. Georgia created a commission in 2008, but it was abolished by a 2011 ruling of the state Supreme Court, which decided that the office ran afoul of a state constitution that grants local school boards broad control over K-12 policy. Backers of charters in the legislature then secured the two-thirds majorities necessary to place a constitutional amendment on the ballot.

Barge, a former teacher and principal, said he backs the creation of "high-quality" charters, but said the commission's approval of new ones would drain funding from traditional public school systems shaken by state budget cuts.

Until the state makes up for those cuts, "we should not redirect one more dollar away from Georgia's local school districts," Barge said in a statement. The superintendent added that he thought creating the commission would usurp local control over education, and allow public money to flow to for-profit charter operators.

"I cannot support the creation of a new and costly state bureaucracy that takes away local control of schools and unnecessarily duplicates the good work already being done by local districts, the Georgia Department of Education, and the state Board of Education," Barge said.

"What's more, this constitutional amendment would direct taxpayer dollars into the pockets of out-of-state, for-profit charter school companies whose schools perform no better than traditional public schools and locally approved charter schools (and worse, in some cases)."

The governor responded by accusing his fellow Republican of having reversed himself on the issue.

"I am discouraged that Superintendent Barge has changed his position since the campaign trail and no longer believes parents should have public school options for their children," Deal said. The governor said he would "uphold the promises I made when I ran for office: Parents and students should have public school options; this is true local control."

In a 2010 interview with the Georgia Charter Schools Association, then-candidate Barge checked a box saying he "agreed" with allowing local districts, the state board of education, and a state commission to approve and monitor charter schools.

But a spokeswoman for Barge's office, Dorie Turner Nolt, pointed out that in response to that same question, Barge wrote that he found it "greatly disappointing that we need another administrative body to do something" that the state board and local officials otherwise could do.

During his campaign, Barge continually voiced "concerns about making government bigger," the spokeswoman added.

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