UPDATE: Voters are opposing Amendment 1, based on early election results. Follow here for more coverage.
When Georgia voters head to the polls on Nov. 8, they’ll find a list of referendums at the bottom of their ballots. The first one could have a major effect on education.
If voters agree to Amendment 1, they’ll be approving a change to the state constitution. Opponents and proponents are making claims in their competing ads about what the change would accomplish. This is what it would actually do:
1. What referendum will Georgia be voting on this Nov. 8 election? The ballot question asks whether the state should be allowed to “intervene” to improve “chronically failing” schools. A “yes” vote would allow the creation of a new state agency with another state schools superintendent. Unlike the current superintendent, this one would not be elected. Opponents have sued, alleging the wording is “misleading.”
2. How would Gov. Nathan Deal's Opportunity School District work? Separate legislation has already established a law explaining how the new Opportunity School District would work. The new superintendent would be appointed by the governor and confirmed by the state senate and would answer only to the governor. He or she would pick schools to take over, then decide whether to shut them down, run them or convert them to charter schools under the State Charter Schools Commission, which itself was created by a constitutional amendment in 2012.
3. Which schools could be taken over by the state? The superintendent’s decision would come after hearing community “input” and “feedback,” but he or she would have the final say. The superintendent could pick up to 20 schools that earned an “F” on the state’s accountability system three years in a row, maintaining a maximum of 100 schools in the state district at any one time.
4. How does the state determine if a school is failing or not? The current measure is the Georgia Department of Education’s College and Career Ready Performance Index, which gives each school a score of 0 to 110 points. It’s based on things like attendance and graduation rates, but test scores on state standardized tests — currently, known as the Milestones — are the most heavily-weighted component. Anything below a 60 is considered failing, as determined by the Governor’s Office of Student Achievement. Nearly 130 schools are on the list.
5. What will happen to failing schools? Schools that are shuttered cannot be re-used for the same purpose for three years. If the new superintendent decides to run the school, he or she can decide whether to involve the local school board. If the superintendent chooses the charter school route, then he or she will select the governing board from the “community” and will select all consultants, education service providers and school management organizations, whether non-profit or for-profit. The superintendent also decides whether to replace the staff.
Schools will operate within the Opportunity School District for as long as 10 years, exiting only after they score above failing for three straight years. Improved schools will return to local control, unless they were converted to charter schools. In that case, they will continue to operate under the State Charter Schools Commission as long as they perform well enough to keep their charters. And local taxpayers will continue to pay their share for the schools’ operations.
6. How will my tax dollars be used for the Opportunity School District? Local taxpayers will continue to pay a per-student amount to support the school, including 3 percent that will go to the Opportunity School District (to be shared with the State Charter Schools Commission in the case of charters) for administration costs.
7. What are people saying about the referendum? Those who are for the opportunity school district say school systems have had their chance for years to take action and have failed students. Gov. Deal has blasted critics of his plan, accusing opponents of allowing failure to fester in schools.
School referendum opponents have presented alternative plans. Among their proposals: focusing on better teaching, stronger lessons, stable school leadership and more funding for local schools. DeKalb Superintendent Steve Green, whose county is among those with the most schools subject to takeover, had been one of the referendum's most vocal opponents.
Read the law for yourself, Senate Bill 133 from 2015.
Indepth on MyAJC.com