While those in favor of charter schools called the event a great opportunity, public school advocates say the students are being used to lobby for the school choice cause and argue similar opportunities to address the Cherokee delegation are not provided to those in traditional public schools.
Sponsored by the Center for an Educated Georgia, the event was scheduled to begin at 10 a.m. on the steps of the Georgia State Capitol on Washington Street near Martin Luther King Jr. Drive.
Lyn Michaels-Carden, Georgia Charter Education Foundation board of directors chair, said 150 Cherokee Charter Academy fifth-graders were taken to Atlanta not only to participate in the rally, but to fulfill the charter school’s fifth-grade curriculum requirement of touring the Capitol.
Carden said the event is about teaching students the importance of having a voice.
“This is the second year in a row we have tied the tour with the rally,” Carden said. “The rally is not only a great opportunity for our children to better understand the importance of each citizen’s duty to have a voice and the function of our state government, it also allows them the opportunity to meet children and parents from around the state who also attend charter schools and have participated in this important movement.”
Organizers say the annual rally is aimed at spotlighting the need to expand educational options for all children in the state — including options to attend homeschools, online schools, hybrid schools and others. The event culminated with students telling legislators how expanded school choice options have impacted them, according to organizers.
In a release Friday, EmpowerEd Georgia, a non-profit education advocacy organization, said charter students at the rally were simply used as “lobbying tools.”
Michele Dodge, founder of Cherokee Citizens for the Kids and EmpowerEd, said 95 percent of Georgia students weren’t invited or able to make their voices heard during the school choice rally.
“It’s just another way that we are not equally represented using the same public funds,” Dodge said. “We just want it to be an even opportunity.”
However, Cherokee County Board of Education member Kelly Marlow said the rally was about celebrating the “Constitutional right of parents to choose an education model that works best for their child.”
“While these options are a big step forward, education reform must remain a top priority in Georgia and across the country,” Marlow said. “The education establishment must continue to look at themselves critically and with an open agenda.”
Michael Sinco, a board member of CCFTK and political action group Neighbors for A Better Cherokee, argued the same rally for non-charter public schools would raise a red flag to some as an inappropriate use of taxpayer funds, as it would require students to be bused to the Capitol.
He argued Friday’s rally was no different.
“A big point of contention right now is the use of taxpayer dollars to lobby our General Assembly,” Sinco said. “This is what is happening with this pro-choice rally.”
The Associated Press also contributed to this story