For Opportunity School District to deliver on claims, 'It would take lots of fairy dust'

Retired school librarian Susan McWethy of Decatur decided to delve into the Opportunity School District enabling legislation, Senate Bill 133

Voters deciding the fate of the OSD in November will not see Senate Bill 133. They will see this question on the ballot: “Shall the Constitution of Georgia be amended to allow the state to intervene in chronically failing public schools in order to improve student performance?”

McWethy shares what she discovered in the enabling legislation and why she thinks Georgians ought to oppose the OSD.

By Susan McWethy

On Nov. 8, voters will be asked to amend Georgia’s constitution to allow the governor to create a state-wide school district, called the Opportunity School District.  On the ballot they will see words to make them believe that Amendment 1, if passed, will “fix” schools that are allegedly failing, increase community involvement, and improve student performance.

It would take lots of fairy dust to make any of these claims come true.  The models for this legislation, Louisiana’s Recovery School District, Tennessee’s Achievement School District, and Michigan’s Education Achievement Authority have all resulted in lackluster academic performance and schools being handed back to their local districts.

Proponents are twisting the ballot language into knots trying to prove that accountability and local control would increase with passage of this amendment.  However, a close reading of the legislation paints a very different picture.

The OSD superintendent, responsible for the operations of the OSD, would be appointed by the governor and serve at his pleasure, stripping away accountability from local school districts and handing it to a less involved, bigger-government bureaucracy.  This political appointee will determine which of four takeover models will be employed for each school: direct management by the OSD, shared governance with the OSD superintendent having authority over changes, reconstitution as a charter school, and closure.

Proponents point out the governor-appointed superintendent would be required to hold a public hearing before selecting a school for the new district.  They overlook the fact all final decisions would be the “sole discretion of the OSD Superintendent.”  There is no appeals process.  Only one public hearing sounds like a formality more than a genuine attempt to garner community feedback.

Proponents assert charter schools exercise more local control because they have their own governing boards.  Again, they omit the salient point that the OSD superintendent would “solicit, screen, and select or approve” those charter school governing board members.  Furthermore, the “authority of the OSD shall supersede” any charters or contracts that now govern existing charter schools selected for takeover.

Significant control would also be handed to another bigger-government entity, the State Charter Schools Commission. The legislation states, for example, that the commission would select education service providers to partner with the OSD charter school governing boards, and work with the OSD superintendent to determine additional assistance that may be needed.  It does not say local community input would be solicited for these important decisions. The service providers selected by the State Charter Schools Commission could be out-of-state charter companies who have no familiarity whatsoever with local Georgia communities.

Funding is another area where local control would be compromised.  Funding for OSD schools would be taken from the local school systems, and those communities would have no say over how their dollars are spent.  Local districts would also be required to hand over school buildings while continuing to be responsible for extensive repairs to those buildings, and they would be “required to cooperate” to make available other requested services.

At the local level, the expertise of teachers, with their unique knowledge of their students, have the greatest impact on student performance; however, these professionals have been completely left out of any OSD decision-making, and some even risk losing their jobs.  Additionally, the legislation does not detail any instructional strategies or curriculum, so voters have no idea what is likely to happen at the classroom level.  The OSD superintendent would set the goals and hold teachers responsible, which is not a model for success.

If state takeovers have failed in three states already, that should have been a clue to Georgia legislators that we are headed in the wrong direction.  Those states readily acknowledge that working with the most challenged students requires more than “fixes.”

The language voters will see on the ballot for Amendment 1 is brazenly deceptive, and the consequences for our schools are dire. The amendment specifies no academic plan to improve student performance; takes authority, facilities and resources away from local school districts; and silences families and teachers. Georgia deserves better.

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About the Author

Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.