From the Atlanta Business Chronicle

The Evans Report
Making ethics reform meaningful

Premium content from Atlanta Business Chronicle by Randy Evans

Date: Friday, November 30, 2012, 6:00am EST

Comprehensive ethics reform is never an easy process, and Georgia is certainly no exception. Yet, House Speaker David Ralston has promised it; Sen. Josh McKoon has pushed it; and Gov. Nathan Deal supports it. Ethics reform will come again to Georgia in 2013.

With that said, ethics reform is a tricky business. On the one hand, to be effective, ethics rules must leave little room for manipulation by unscrupulous politicians intent on profiteering from their position of trust. On the other hand, overly legalistic rules can serve as traps for unwary honest elected officials travelling through partisan political minefields closely monitored by political operatives eager to capitalize on any technical “ethical” misstep.

Typically, ethics reform comes on the heels of scandals that rock institutional power and overthrow political majorities. Two cases in point occurred in 1994 and 2006, when ethics scandals provided the catalysts for historic losses for Democrats and Republicans in the U. S. House of Representatives, respectively.

Yet, while there have been some intermittent ethical miscues by some state legislators, there have not been scandals of such stature as to make ethics reform unavoidable or the necessary consequence of a system out of control. Instead, ethics reform in the Georgia General Assembly appears to be the product of the growth of a majority party intent on avoiding the mistakes of the past while protecting the process for the future.

Having participated in drafting and redrafting comprehensive ethics packages from the lowest levels of government to the U.S. Congress, one thing is clear: legislated ethics can become little more than a lawyer full-employment bill with little positive impact on ethics and significant negative consequences on public service. Hyper-technical rules aimed at defining every prohibited behavior are little more than lawyers’ best friends.

Gift bans are a good example. Banning every gift will be about as effective as posting a 55 mph speed limit on I-285. Everyone knows it is the law, but no one takes it seriously. Inevitably, the exceptions (for families, friends, long-standing acquaintances, etc.) end up swallowing the rule. This is largely what has happened in Washington, D.C.

On the other hand, gift disclosures are quite effective. There is no more effective tool for assuring honesty and integrity than full disclosure for every voter (and political opponent) to see. Full transparency eliminates the need for fine distinctions among gift-givers while permitting every voter to serve as private inspectors-general holding politicians accountable for the gifts they receive.

Of course, elected officials are not the only ones who must be held accountable. Gift-givers must also face consequences. Politicians can face the wrath of voters. Lobbyists must face penalties of a different sort. These can include fines, penalties and privileges.

While gifts are headline-grabbers, conflicts of interest are a far more serious issue. Elected officials participating in decisions in which they have a personal or financial interest present a far greater threat to the electoral process. Georgia already has a direct prohibition against regulated entities donating to those who regulate them. When conflicts exist, disclosure alone is not enough. Tougher rules are required with significant penalties to deter violations, and severe penalties to deal with repeat offenders.

Finally, to be effective, there must be a mechanism for enforcing the rules. This means an entity with sufficient resources, authority and jurisdiction to detect, investigate and sanction violations of the rules. All bark and no bite does not do the trick.

As the Congress and other states have learned, ineffective ethics enforcement creates a vacuum which criminal law enforcement agencies like the Department of Justice are left to fill. Unfortunately, the tendency by some law enforcement agencies is to fill the vacuum through relaxed interpretations of bribery statutes to cast a broader net to police unregulated problems through extraordinary measures.

Public scrutiny, when based on accurate and timely information, is and remains the most effective deterrent and policing mechanism for would-be abusers of the system. But that is not enough.

Effective ethics reform requires simple and easy reporting of violations; enhanced disclosure requirements for gifts and conflicts of interest; better transparency through the use of technology and the Internet; and meaningful oversight jurisdiction with sufficient resources to enforce the rules against those who refuse to follow the rules.

Anything less is just cosmetics.

Evans is an attorney and columnist.

The Evans Report -- Charter Schools a Big Step Forward

Premium content from Atlanta Business Chronicle

by Randy Evans  --  October 19, 2012


Georgia stands at a crossroads. On the one hand, Georgia schools have made great progress toward better futures for Georgia's children with better resources and stronger curricula. On the other hand, no one thinks that Georgia's schools are anywhere close to where they need to be - especially in some areas where the schools are simply not getting the job done.


On Nov. 6, Georgians get to decide whether to go the slow route to better schools, or resume the jump-start for much more immediate progress through choice and competition. Admittedly, for many parents, it is a distinction without a difference since their children's schools are fine. For them, the Charter Amendment has no impact. Their children can continue at the same school with no impact. After all, charter schools present no risk to public school funding. No deduction can be made to any state funding of a local school system because of a charter school. Charter schools are funded outside of the normal education funding formula.


For others, however, denying a choice for a better school is a decision that can mean the difference between a life of constantly catching up or a life full of opportunity on a much more level playing field. Yet, this difference between the "haves" (with good schools) and the "have nots" (with failing schools) presents the core question behind the Charter School Amendment: Why would a state lock children into failing schools, denying them the choice or opportunity for a better life?


And, why would those responsible for creating the failed schools have the right to deny a choice for a school other than the failed schools they have produced or approved?

Yet, that is exactly what the Georgia Supreme Court did when it struck down Georgia's Charter School law. It struck down the ability of parents and teachers to come together and seek a charter for a school from someone other than those responsible for creating failing schools.


Fortunately, the Georgia Supreme Court is not the final word. Now, Georgians have the opportunity to exercise the ultimate control on Nov. 6, and overrule the Georgia Supreme Court through an amendment to Georgia's constitution to take back the right for parents to choose what is best for their own children.


The Charter School Amendment is straightforward. It asks:


Shall the Constitution of Georgia be amended to allow state or local approval of public charter schools upon the request of local communities?


Who would oppose such an amendment? The question is best answered by asking who would have the most to lose if parents and their children were given the option to opt out of failed schools. The answer is obvious.


Failing schools, and those responsible for creating them, do not want change. After all, if parents and children are given a choice, monopolies of political power that perpetuate unacceptable results lose power and credibility. It is only by eliminating choice and competition that bad results can continue to be the norm.


Year after year, many of Georgia's children are failed by schools that leave them unable to compete in an increasingly competitive world. But that's not the worst problem.

Teens who do not graduate high school are largely relegated to a lifetime of hardship, from limited employment opportunities as well as a high incidence of crime. Georgia's prisons are overwhelmingly populated by men and women who did not graduate high school. Taxpayers pay for all of these societal ills, and they cost dearly.


Oddly, one of the principal arguments against the amendment has been that it threatens local control of schools. Yet, how much more local can government get than to allow parents and children to vote with their feet? The Charter School Amendment gives parents the choice to opt out of a failing school that happens to be the local public school.


Charter schools provide the ultimate local control - immediate control by parents of their children at the time they need it most without waiting another four years for the next election.


If Georgia's schools were the best in the country, or even in the top 25 percent, the need might not be so great. But that is not the case - Georgia is in the bottom tier of states, especially when it comes to the ultimate measure of success - graduation rates.


According to the Governor's Office of Student Achievement, state charter schools outperformed their local school districts in English, reading, science and Social Studies in 2011. In some areas, the gap between the only current choice and the charter school is startling. For example, the only state charter high school had a 95.8 percent graduation rate while its local district's rate was 69.01 percent.


From Democratic Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel to Republican Gov. Nathan Deal, the answer is the same: Charter schools are a big step in the right direction. The Charter School Amendment helps make that happen.


From the Atlanta Business Chronicle (sub.)