Note to governor: Opposing state takeover doesn't mean you support failing schools

Georgia educator Bryan Stephens sent me a note about the governor’s comments Thursday about teacher raises and the Opportunity School District; Nathan Deal's comments sparked a lot of controversy.

I appreciated Stephens' viewpoint  because he's in the trenches as a director of finance in a rural district and knows what's happening and presented a fact-based analysis of what Gov. Deal got wrong.

I also like his belief – one I share – that opposing Deal’s Opportunity School District does not mean you support failing schools, as the governor alleges. It means you doubt the OSD is the right fix and there is evidence to support that stance.

Here’s the reality: Failing schools are typically located in impoverished communities dealing with high crime, low employment and families in crisis. In some parts of Georgia, meth and heroin have ravaged communities.

Those communities lack the safety nets and comprehensive social services needed to address all of these problems, so we turn to the schools and ask them to change the trajectories of the children. And schools do, for some of the kids. But the schools alone cannot revive economically desolate  Main Streets, conquer crime, get parents good-paying jobs and help them to guide their children to better choices than they made.

That said, I believe the OSD will pass in the November election. I also believe the results from existing state programs closest in design to the OSD -- Tennessee and Michigan -- suggest plucking schools from districts and putting them under control of an appointed superintendent out of Atlanta will make little to no real improvement. (I also predict the zeal for the OSD will wane once Deal leaves office and it becomes one of those costly state initiatives that eventually dribbles away due to legislative indifference.)

I asked Bryan Stephens to expand on his email to me and here is his longer response to the governor:

Recently, there has been much conversation about the how local school districts spend the funds they receive from the state of Georgia, the Opportunity School District and a new education funding formula on the horizon.

Each of these three issues can affect every child in Georgia.

I will start by stating I do not feel the concerns of politicians always mesh with the concerns of educators and those working in local school districts when it comes to education. This will not be a political push piece for the right or left, just an honest observation from a parent, citizen and employee who spent about seven years in two of the five largest districts in Georgia, and the last year in the a district in one of the smaller rural school districts in Georgia.

The Opportunity School District will be met with skepticism from many based on the success, or lack thereof, of these same models in Louisiana and Tennessee. The results are mixed at best, while most education policy experts say they have blatantly failed.

The OSD will be viewed by some as a way to funnel public funds away from public schools, and framing it as school choice or a plan to save inner city and poor, disadvantaged youth from their failing schools. It is not a bad thing for citizens to be leery about their public tax dollars possibly being given to private companies to run their schools, which is how most feel the state will operate the OSD. This can lead to a number of ethical questions with regards to relationships of those companies with public officials. It may be well intended, but it could also open a Pandora’s Box that may not be able to be shut. It’s not an easy choice.

I do not think those against the OSD are for failing schools and failing children. For years, the argument has been made to give more control to communities and school districts at the local level, and to some approving the OSD seems counterintuitive to that theory. While it is time for the local school districts to produce results, those results require resources. It is extremely challenging for educators to bring all children to the same level of achievement without an equal playing field.  It seems that we can all agree the playing field is not equal for all children in the state of Georgia. It now appears, however, that healthy conversation and debate are only met with warnings, ominous videos, and thinly veiled threats.

Revising the education funding formula has been a goal of many of our leaders, both politicians and educators alike. The current formula is convoluted and difficult to understand for many of us who work in finance departments of local school districts across the state. To simplify it could qualify as a WIN for many people who have to plan budgets annually with the current formula. However, when deciding on a new formula, it cannot be a scenario where funding education is simply a caveat used to the balance the budget during tough economic times.

Furthermore, the total funding amount shouldn’t be lowered whenever the state budget needs tightening. Everyone should be represented in the discussions because the needs of 180 Georgia school districts are very different. What works for metro school districts usually does not work for school districts in middle and south Georgia.

An Education Reform Commission has been formed to work on the formula but the make-up that committee leaves many scratching their heads. Since it is discussing funding, shouldn’t there be actual finance directors, CFOs from school districts across the state on the education reform commission?

The commission lacks educators from across the state. (Note: A few members may have changed since the original commission was formed). At last check, there were possibly two educators on the commission that work south of Macon. TWO… out of more than 30 plus members on the commission. That’s for all of middle and south Georgia. Perception would lead many to conclude those with the most lobbyists will get to determine what is best for all.

Lastly, to address the 3 percent additional funding that was given to local school districts for the current school year. Our teachers, administrators, and employees are asking us, “Where is my 3 percent?”

We need all the facts on the table to have an honest discussion. Some school districts still have furloughs in place to balance their budgets, so there is no way they could afford to give employees a 3 percent raise, which would have been in place for future years. Giving a 3 percent across-the-board raise would have significant implications on other areas such as the Teacher Retirement System contributions for local school districts.

The state did not change the teacher salary scale to ensure this would be fully funded. A neighboring school district actually had 10 furlough days as recently as the 2015-2016 school year. Last school year (2015-2016), the district where I am now employed was finally able to give back the final five furlough days.

Decreased funding from the state for student transportation and the school districts’ ever rising burden for health care cost for classified employees ($164/employee monthly in 2010 to $846/classified employee month in 2016) quickly wipes out any increases in local tax digests and state funding.

My children are in 5th and 7th grade in the school district where I reside. Their district has a 1:1 district initiative for technology. Therefore, my 10-year-old and 12-year-old both have laptops and/or tablets to bring home daily. I work in a district, however, where many of our teachers and administrators do not even have laptops and/or tablets. Again, an example of the one-size-fits-all approach that just does not work.

I wish our discussion about how to fund education was not so political, and where everything was done with the children in mind. I am convinced of one thing: It is impossible for everyone to be happy with whatever is decided between the OSD and new education state funding formula.

With that being said, we still should not muzzle voices and push for votes based on personal agendas. We have to keep in mind that the children all over the state of Georgia should be our ONLY priority.



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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.