ATLANTA -- Staff members in the charter school division of the Georgia Department of Education keep notepads in their offices inscribed with a mantra: "Is it best for students? Then do it."
But when it comes to charter schools, parents, teachers, education officials and legislators are deeply divided over what exactly would be best for students.
Here in Georgia, the future of charters, which are publicly financed but privately operated, could be determined Tuesday by a ballot measure that asks voters to amend the State Constitution so that an appointed statewide commission could authorize new schools.
Along with high-stakes testing and tenure changes, legislative efforts to expand charter schools are among the most contentious issues in education circles. Proponents say charters can experiment with new teaching strategies to help struggling students or those stuck in failing public schools. Detractors say the charters drain precious public money and energy from neighborhood schools.
At issue in Georgia is who should decide whether a charter school can open. Supporters of the amendment say a commission focused exclusively on charters is necessary to override resistant local school boards and ensure that parents have ample educational choices.
"Education is one of the few things in our country that you have no choice," said Lyn Carden, the board chairwoman of the Georgia Charter Educational Foundation, which operates two charter schools that were initially denied applications by their local school boards.
"You live in this neighborhood, you go to this school," Ms. Carden said. "For some parents, it works great, but not all schools are right for all kids."
Critics of the amendment say families already have plenty of choices, including charter schools authorized by local school boards.
"We are not arguing the merits or demerits of charter schools," said Herb Garrett, the executive director of the Georgia School Superintendents Association. "We're just saying that decisions about new schools in a community ought to be made by elected officials who represent those citizens, not a bunch of political appointees in Atlanta who have no idea what's going on in a local school district."
The Georgia initiative, as well as a ballot measure in Washington State that would permit charters there for the first time, is being closely watched across the country. In both states, the measures have attracted financial support from national business leaders and advocacy groups.
In Washington, donors supporting the charter ballot initiative include Bill and Melinda Gates; the parents of Jeff Bezos, the founder and chief executive of Amazon; and Nicholas Hanauer, a prominent venture capitalist. Alice Walton, the daughter of Walmart's founder, Sam Walton, has contributed to campaigns supporting the measures in both Georgia and Washington.
Americans for Prosperity, the Tea Party organization founded by the billionaire Koch brothers, has donated to a committee supporting the charter amendment in Georgia. Students First, a group run by Michelle A. Rhee, the former schools chancellor in the District of Columbia, has also contributed and is helping to organize supporters in the state.
The roster of contributors in Georgia includes several companies that manage charter schools, including K12 Inc., Charter Schools USA and National Heritage Academies. In all, committees supporting the ballot measure have collected 15 times as much as groups opposing the measure, according to public filings.
Opponents point to such wealthy donors and argue that the charter amendment is part of a broader agenda designed to privatize education and discredit public schools.
The heavy spending, some education experts say, could rouse the kind of opposition that exploded during the teachers' strike in Chicago in September. The union there railed against teacher evaluations and challenges to union seniority that are advocated by some of the same groups behind the charter movement.
The Chicago strike "was a serious pushback against these fairly radical reformers coming in with a lot of money," said John S. Ayers, the executive director of the Cowen Institute for Public Education Initiatives at Tulane University. "It will be interesting to see what happens in Georgia."
As with many battles over public education, political alliances are being remade. Here in Georgia, where the charter amendment could give the state more power to overrule local education boards, conservatives who typically champion decentralized government are giving the amendment full-throated support.
Meanwhile, some Tea Party members have joined Democratic legislators, including State Senators Jason Carter and Vincent D. Fort, in opposing the measure. The state's school superintendent, John D. Barge, a Republican, has come out against it as well.
The measure's supporters say local school boards tend to be hostile to charter school applicants because they see them as competing for students and state financing. Public school districts "have a monopoly they wish to protect," said Chip Rogers, a Republican state senator who sponsored the bill that put the measure on the November ballot. "But if they're not serving their kids, you have to give them an additional option."
Critics note that local school boards have repeatedly granted approval for charters. Of the 108 independent charter schools operating in Georgia, nearly 9 of 10 were authorized locally, said Louis Erste, the director of the State Education Department's charter schools division.
Although the State Supreme Court last year struck down a previous incarnation of a state charter commission established in 2008, charter applicants rejected by local school boards may still appeal to the State Board of Education.
Many voters simply find it difficult to understand the amendment's details and consequences.
"I find it offensive that voters literally have to have a law degree to figure out what is going on here," said Elizabeth Hooper, a mother of three children who have attended public schools in Alpharetta, a suburb of Atlanta. "The General Assembly is using the voter as a pawn."
At a forum about the measure last month, Monica Henson, the executive director of the Provost Academy, an online school that had been authorized by the now defunct state commission, said the amendment would help other similar schools start and grow.
"How can something like this be bad for kids?" she asked.
Ms. Henson said the school, which allows students to work on computers at home, served students who were at risk of dropping out of traditional schools, many of them from poor and minority families.
Such arguments anger black leaders who say charter schools either isolate African-American students or allow white families to escape to schools where children can avoid black classmates.
"Charter schools tend to resegregate or reinforce segregation," said Mr. Fort, the chairman of the legislature's black caucus committee on education.
Mr. Fort and others point to Pataula Charter Academy, a school in the southwest corner of the state that was approved by the short-lived charter commission three years ago. Three-quarters of the school's 358 students are white, while the five counties that feed into it have populations that are 50 percent to 90 percent black.
"Of course, these numbers are not where we want to be," said Cheryl Weathersby, Pataula's business director. Ms. Weathersby said the school, which admits students by lottery, received few applications from black families.
Along the road leading to Pataula, neighbors had stuck orange signs into their front yards that read "Yes, Public Charter Schools -- Amendment One." A teacher at the school wore a green T-shirt with "Vote Yes for Charter Schools" emblazoned on the back.
Ms. Weathersby said the charter amendment was crucial to Pataula's survival. "It scares me for parents," she said. "What about our children? They'd have to go back to schools that didn't work for them."
Robbie Brown contributed reporting.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.