Preserving and praising the status quo in Georgia

Adam Emerson

One of the more alarming developments out of Monday’s Georgia Supreme Court ruling disbanding that state’s charter school commission is the near-celebration among the court’s majority of the 1877 state constitutional provision that guided the justices. Writing for the majority, Chief Justice Carol Hunstein establishes that Georgia citizens have repeatedly memorialized constitutional language “granting local boards of education the exclusive right to … maintain … the exclusive control over general K-12 education.” But Hunstein laughably notes that the preservation of “the now 134-year-old status quo” is secured.

It’s one thing to recognize the good intentions of the 19th-century constitutional framers who empowered the “level of government closest and most responsive to the taxpayers and parents of the children being educated.” It’s quite another to insulate the status quo from any attempt at public innovation and to glorify the result. Reasonable people can disgree on the effectiveness and proper regulation of charter schools, but is Hunstein telling us that no publicly funded educational innovation or enterprise is permissible unless first engineered and christened by the local school board?

This contention would put most states in a quandary. An appeals court in Florida in 2008 similarly stripped an independent charter schools authorizer of its power, claiming that it “permits and encourages the creation of a parallel system of free education escaping the operation and control of local elected school boards.” Under this reasoning, all charter schools would be constitutionally suspect, since they operate under different rules and regulations, even when authorized by local school boards.

But it’s doubtful the framers had this conflict in mind, and it’s reasonable to assume that the authors of Florida’s and Georgia’s constitutions would have preferred to enhance the liberty of the family while preserving the autonomy of locally elected boards of education. They saw it as a state’s responsibility to educate its citizenry, but the administration of that job would go to the unit with a greater knowledge of an individual’s and a community’s needs.

The advent of charter schools and school choice recognizes that families can now decide what is in their children’s best educational interest. It’s true that Georgians have repeatedly upheld the constitutional power of school boards, but it’s nonsense to assume these same voters would have favored a scheme that would limit their public education options only to those hatched by local government.  You don’t have to be a libertarian to see the value of an independent commission that authorizes more school choices for parents. But a 4-3 majority of the Georgia Supreme Court believes that the commission is only an attempt by the state to compete with the principal of local control. That’s an antiquated constitutional test that would likely vanquish most 21st century attempts to meet the individual needs of the student.

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