Does the governor's state school takeover district trample local control?

Nathan Deal did not get his Opportunity School District, but he may get a diluted version via the Legislature. (AJC photo)

Credit: Maureen Downey

Credit: Maureen Downey

Nathan Deal did not get his Opportunity School District, but he may get a diluted version via the Legislature. (AJC photo)

Jesus Tirado is a full-time doctoral student at the University of Georgia. He taught social studies for nine years. In his first piece for the AJC Get Schooled blog, Tirado explains why he opposes the governor's proposed state takeover district, which will be on the November ballot.

Tirado maintains Gov. Nathan Deal's Opportunity School District subverts the long-held doctrine of local control. He argues an appointed OSD superintendent based in Atlanta may be able to see what a school is doing wrong, but only the community also knows what a school is doing right. And any reform effort has to consider both a school's challenges and its assets.

The battle over Deal's Opportunity School District plan is heating up. A coalition called the Committee to Keep Georgia Schools Local, which counts the Georgia Association of Educators, the Georgia AFL-CIO, Better Georgia and the Concerned Black Clergy of Metro Atlanta among its supporters, was supposed to hold an inaugural press event Saturday at Piedmont Park but postponed it.

The governor is not without his allies. My colleagues at the AJC Political Insider blog reported today: "Deal, who casts his constitutional amendment as a moral imperative, has his own big-money campaign brewing. A pair of groups, Georgia Leads and Georgia Leads for Education, have raised hundreds of thousands of dollars to support the constitutional amendment."

With that background, here is Tirado's essay:

By Jesus Tirado

When the Opportunity School District was announced, Gov. Nathan Deal said part of the rationale for this new state bureaucracy was we couldn’t sit by while schools were failing.  The governor is right, of course; we cannot and should not do nothing when schools are failing our kids.

But the OSD is not the answer to the problems of schools. It creates a new layer of bureaucracy for schools to navigate as they work hard to create better classrooms and climates for their students, and it makes schools and administration less accountable to their communities. Our schools face serious challenges, but the answers and responses to these problems need to be local, not outsourced to the state. We have to consider what matters to us and our schools as we think about how to help our schools get better at helping students.

While helping our schools is important, the OSD would require a surrendering of rights and democratic power and eliminate communities from the process. The Georgia Constitution outlines and protects the rights for schools to be administered by local people and through local elections to provide a direct connection and local accountability for schools and communities. The state government is already helping struggling schools so the question should not be how do we get the state involved more, but how do we get involved more in our local schools. We do not need to surrender our rights to get better schools.

Given how the OSD is structured and built, we need to very cautious about yielding power over our schools. The OSD can easily outsource school administration and programs with no accountability to the community. Current schools have to approve programs and personnel through their local district offices that are overseen by locally elected school boards.

Under the OSD, parents will have a harder time accessing the decision-makers in their school. Why can’t we talk to families, teachers, students and the community about what they want to see from their schools and how can we all work together to make it a more productive space before embracing a state-centric answer? We cannot help our schools if we only look for problems to fix. We have to look at their assets and what they bring to our communities, alongside the challenges they face. Cutting communities out of the governing of our schools makes this all impossible.

I am asking you to vote “no” on the proposed amendment to the state Constitution because we can no longer stand by and let the state government wrest our decision-making power from us. Our schools face serious issues with discipline and safety, teachers, accountability, and building a better school climate. It would not be fair to anyone to pass off those questions to some appointed OSD leader living in Atlanta, when the problems and the solutions are here in our own communities.

The amendment asks if you want the state involved in improving chronically failing schools.  This deliberately vague and misleading ballot language might make it seem like one should unquestionably vote “yes.” But remember the state is already involved in those schools. They send experts, moneys, and ideas across the state to failing schools and try hard to keep schools accountable. The next step is for us, as concerned parents, community members, teachers, and students, to get involved in these institutions and help them be accountable to their students and their mission.

So how do we get involved? The first step is to vote. When you do vote, and I hope you vote "no," take that as invitation to reach out to your local schools and see what they need, what's going on and how can you get involved. Relish the fact this institution is here for your community and for all communities and it is one of our rights that we should protect. There are many groups that are fighting the OSD and working to make schools better across the state, including Public Education Matters Georgia and the Georgia Association of Educators.

Your local school board and parent teacher organizations are also good places to start looking for help and questions as they are working to understand how the OSD will affect them.