If governor wants to help failing schools, Opportunity School District isn't answer. Try fair funding.

As he has shown in the past, former Pelham City, Ga., superintendent Jim Arnold is not one to hold back. He demonstrates that again today in this essay on the governor's proposed Opportunity School District. (You can keep up with Arnold  here.)

Georgians will decide in the voting booth on Nov. 8 whether to allow state takeovers. The question is Amendment 1 on the ballot.

By Jim Arnold

If someone said they had a magic solution to your local educational issues that guaranteed your child or grandchild – along with every other child in your community - would be educationally successful and academically competitive with every other child in your state would you be interested in hearing about these magic beans and silver bullets?

“I have such a solution,” said Gov. Nathan Deal, “but I can’t give it to you unless you pass an amendment to the Georgia Constitution.”

Hold on there, pardner. So you’re telling me state control is the only way to improve schools designated by the state as failing? That you can only tell us the secret answer if we give you even more control over educational finances than you already have through Amendment 1 on the Nov. 8 ballot?

The governor already has the resources and the authority to implement widespread changes to the way schools operate. Why is it necessary to change the Constitution and create another layer of government control? I think the governor would rather those that disagree just keep their mouths shut while he hawks those magic beans.

Gov. Deal's Opportunity School District is modeled after the state-run Recovery School District imposed post-Katrina on failing schools in New Orleans. Turning those schools over to charter operators did not magically improve them, firing all the administrators and teachers and replacing them with Teach for America people did not suddenly cause student achievement to soar and competition did not produce promised educational improvement. In fact, things quickly got worse and then deteriorated from there.  On May 19, Gov. John Bel Edwards signed Act 91 into law transferring the schools back to their original districts before July 1, 2019, and ended the RSD experiment. No achievement gaps were closed, children were, indeed, left behind and the RSD was described as one of the poorest performing districts in one of the lowest performing states.

Michigan has an Education Achievement Authority. It has no defenders and is charitably described as an educational disaster area.  Michigan legislators are looking for ways to disband the EAA as painlessly as possible.

Tennessee created its Achievement School District to take control of the state’s lowest 5 percent of schools and move them into the top 25 percent within five years. Researchers at Vanderbilt University found that after four years all of the schools taken over by the state were still in the bottom 5 percent except one; it was now in the bottom 7 percent. An audit by the Division of State Audits said the ASD “lacks control over basic functions” and that the Comptroller’s Office was forced to “seize control of fiscal and federal processes.” Not the words of encouragement you want to hear about the agency that’s supposed to revolutionize education.

Georgia, North Carolina and Nevada are discussing the possibility of similar state takeovers. Can you say “model legislation from ALEC?”

Not all Georgians are supportive of the governor’s efforts, leading to the governor’s comments praising school superintendents for “keeping their mouths shut” and accusing local boards of “allowing failure to fester” for generations. Thirty-five school boards – some of them with no schools on the OSD takeover list – have had the temerity to pass resolutions against his plan.

The governor forgot to mention the research that supports his plan, and said in its defense that “we have to do something.” He also forgot to mention education in Georgia has been underfunded by billions of dollars since he became governor. Even with the increases to the budget this year, his administration has failed to meet the required funding levels once. Not even close. He also forgot to mention that the poorer districts with higher percentages of students in poverty are affected to a greater degree by the state’s underfunding, and that fewer teachers, furlough days, more students, higher insurance costs and increased transportation costs have hurt these systems to a greater degree than larger, more affluent systems.

So what Gov. Deal is saying is that even though he’s done nothing to provide basic educational funding required by law he wants you to trust him that this proposal – even with its failure in other states and even though it sets up an additional bureaucracy at who knows what cost - is what we really need in Georgia because he’s pretty sure it will work. But hey, even when it fails it will have made a lot of for-profit charter operators a lot of money and the governor will be out of office, so it’s a win-win for him.

There is a correlation between schools listed as “failing” and poverty that no politician/legislator wants to address or even acknowledge. Look at the list of schools on the takeover sheet. See if you notice the common denominators of high minority and/or high poverty and poor achievement levels on standardized tests. We might argue about the growing opt-out movement among parents and educators tired of the negative effects of standardized testing on their kids, on teachers and on instructional time. Real educators know that test scores don’t reflect what students have learned, standardized tests don’t measure what they say they measure and basing any educational decision on the results of standardized testing is educational malpractice.

We might also argue all day about the value and fallacies of using standardized tests to measure academic performance, the zip code effect, if standardized tests are so great then why haven’t private schools jumped on the high stakes testing bandwagon and we could throw in the debate about the effectiveness of school choice and privatization at alleviating academic deficiencies, but instead let’s look at exactly why it is that school reformers only seem to be interested in initiatives and silver bullets that aren’t supported by any research whatsoever. Could it be that education for those in poverty is not the goal, or is it that addressing poverty as the root cause of those pesky educational issues is hard and inconvenient?

The answer, of course, is yes.

The Coleman report, introduced in 1966, is often used as evidence that school funding has little or no effect on student achievement. Closer examination of the results of that survey have also led many to the conclusion that “student background and socioeconomic status are more important in determining educational outcomes than differences in the quality of schools or teachers.”

Whoa!  Wait a minute! You mean schools don’t really matter? No, I don’t mean that. What I mean is that schools don’t matter as much as people think. In the recent frenzy to implement data-driven, market-based educational reforms with no substantive research to indicate they have any effectiveness whatsoever, reformers have – intentionally, some say – lost sight of the fact that schools and education cannot be fixed without first attempting to find solutions to the broader issue of social and economic inequality. What really matters is “schools bring little influence to bear on a child’s achievement that is independent of his background and general social context.” Mom and Dad matter. Reading at home matters. Books at home matter. Parental expectations matter. Family matters. A lot.

Wait a minute – so you say that it’s not all the fault of bad teachers or public schools or renegade school boards or stupid administrators or students that don’t try to pass the tests or kids that don’t know how to behave or teacher unions?

Yes. That’s exactly what I’m saying. We cannot address the achievement gap by testing students out of poverty or by raising expectations so they will learn faster or to a greater degree.We cannot improve student learning by firing all the teachers and replacing them with well-intentioned people from other walks of life any more than we can improve student learning by amending the Georgia Constitution. We cannot improve educational outcomes for students unless we address basic needs like food, health, safety and a kid’s life at home. Good teaching does make a difference and good schools do matter, but only up to a point.

“So there’s no hope?” you ask, “there’s no way that all the kids can be above average and everyone can go to college and succeed and ace every Pearson test and that we can raise expectations and standards and make everything OK again?” I can almost hear the sob in your voice as you ask. I will tell you that trying to find magic bullets like the OSD and charters and vouchers and data-driven decision-making and privatization and competition will all fail, first because they do not address the underlying issue of poverty and second because their primary intent is not the improvement of the educational process or bettering the lot of students in poverty but profit for those hellbent on using public monies for private gain.

I can also tell you that addressing basic societal inequalities will go a long way toward solving the issues but they will never completely disappear because of the gigantic bell curve that governs life, and the Lake Woebegone Effect is not going to make sure everyone scores a 32 on the ACT, goes to college and lives happily ever after.

There are some models to follow, but they won’t involve hedge fund managers or for-profit charter operators and won’t serve to make any of your supporters rich. If you are an educator, you probably already know about the ideas in the links I share below and many others, but if you are the governor or one of his advisors that stands to profit from the OSD, you don’t want to hear it.  It’s so much simpler just to try once again to legislate excellence.  Good luck with that.

PAGE: Your work matters

DOE: Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports

DOE: Leadership


Effective Instruction



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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.