Liberal and conservative find common ground in opposing Opportunity School District

Ian Altman chairs the English department at Clarke Central High School in Athens. He has written for the Get Schooled blog twice before, most recently about the Legislature's meddling in the AP U.S. History course. He is the recipient of teaching awards from the universities of Chicago, Georgia, and Arizona, and a three-time PAGE STAR Teacher winner.

Dan DeLamater is the president of Southern Mutual Insurance Company and an education advocate. He is the parent of two students at Clarke Central High School and wrote an earlier piece for the blog on his concerns over the Opportunity School District.

While Altman and DeLamater don't share political world views, they agree the Opportunity School District is a mistake and explain why in this joint essay.

By Ian Altman and Dan DeLamater

The so-called Opportunity School District which Georgia’s voters will consider on Nov. 8 runs counter to both conservative and liberal political ideals, and it is not based on sound educational practices. We can only make sense of it as an attempt to siphon public money to private business interests, robbing from Georgia’s neediest children the right to depend on the village that raises them.

We believe it is pertinent to our purpose to note that we have widely diverging political perspectives. Ian is a progressive, committed to policies generally said to be liberal, and a fan of Bernie Sanders. Dan is historically conservative with a philosophy honoring local control, reduced government bureaucracy, and our constitutional mandate.

We have known each other for a few years through our local public high school which Dan’s children attend and where Ian teaches, committed ourselves to civil and well-intentioned political argument, and found our diverging perspectives to converge on this crucial issue in Georgia.

From a conservative political perspective, the Opportunity School District is a violation of the basic ideals of limited government and local control. Georgia’s citizens vote for representatives in two areas of school oversight. One is at our local school board level, the closest leadership to each school. The other is for the state superintendent, an important component of state oversight and leadership.

Georgia’s citizens also expect an efficient and effective government. Our citizen legislators must find ways to eliminate duplication and inefficiency in our bureaucracy. And, of course, conservatives are reportedly protectors of our constitution. Interestingly, this scheme passed by a Republican Legislature on behalf of a Republican governor casts citizen votes aside and houses power in an appointed position void of transparency. It expands state government with a tertiary role bypassing local school boards and the state superintendent.

It also violates the mandate of our constitution (thus Amendment 1 on our ballots) -- an important separation of capital leadership and local education practice. Finally, the OSD czar would be governed by a new position in the Capitol answering only to the governor, not to the families of students in schools taken over.

From a liberal political perspective, the Opportunity School District violates the ideals of responsible governance and social equity. From this point of view, the problem is not the bureaucracy as such, but the competence with which its undemocratically appointed leader runs it. How will the OSD czar from a seat in Atlanta understand the issues affecting a school in, for example, rural Echols County?

The czar may look at CCRPI scores, historical trends in test scores, and other measured data, but will be ignorant of the specific local issues affecting individual schools. Poor test scores can be caused by anything from weak school leadership to inequitable local district zoning to the state’s dire shortage of teachers to any number of other factors.

The predictable result will be to hand over those schools to private charter school chains, 21st century carpetbaggers, sending local tax dollars to out-of-state corporations that lie to students about the importance and legitimacy of standardized tests and have proven track records of failure.

The outcome will be an erosion of basic social equity: poor students become obedient test-taking machines who have the creativity, inquisitiveness, and intellectual autonomy trained out of them, while those who are unaffected by the scheme go on about their lives as they always have.

Setting our ideological lenses aside and looking only at the concrete facts of this situation, we also note the governor has suggested he simply wants to help students in failing schools. This is an insincere statement when we understand, first, that our governor already has the ability to oust delinquent school board members, and second, that “failure” is determined largely by a new standardized testing regime that is itself demonstrably a failure providing almost no legitimate data.

One might study the governor’s actions during Clayton and DeKalb school problems. If the governor has power to affect schools and school boards already, what could he possibly need with a new bureaucracy? Our guess is that it is to lend some surface credibility to his claim to be an “education governor.”

Similar plans were enacted in Louisiana and Tennessee, and in both places the results have been either abject failures or no better than traditional public schools. Louisiana’s Recovery School District took over the revenue and responsibility of schools with the state’s lowest graduation rates. After a decade in this additional state governance model, the schools are still graduating fewer students than any other district in Louisiana.

Tennessee’s Achievement School District actually produced lower reading scores in 2014 than when the takeover occurred in 2012.

Michigan has also entered the fray with its Education Achievement District. The Michigan EAD chancellor, Veronica Conforme, has said that testing achievement “has not improved.”

At the root of both the conservative and the liberal arguments against the Opportunity School District is our essential faith in the public, and our belief that as responsible citizens, we owe it to all our fellow community members to defend the public’s right to its own education system.

The Opportunity School District assaults the basic and necessary fact of American social and political life that to make a respectable society we must have a common interest in the health of public life, and that includes public schools. The ideology behind the Opportunity School District rests upon the assumption that all public things are somehow inherently made better by being made private.

Although schools in the Opportunity District would remain technically public in the formal sense of being funded by tax dollars, we have every reason to believe that management of them would be handed over to private, for-profit charter school chains that sell an image of success but have demonstrably poor track records.

The public must not fall for the con.  Vote NO on Amendment 1 on Nov. 8.