Public school takeover bid by Deal fails basic logic test

Gov. Nathan Deal’s attempt to rewrite the state constitution to give him the authority to seize control of local public schools is based on two assumptions, both of which must be true to justify his power grab.

The first — that some local schools are failing their students — is obviously true, so obviously true that Deal rests his entire argument on it. Without exception, those schools deemed eligible for a state takeover are attempting to serve a student population struggling with the effects of entrenched poverty, which also means that education is their main hope for escaping that poverty. It’s the most important educational challenge facing not just Georgia but the country.

Again, there’s no real controversy about that part of the equation. It’s the second assumption upon which the whole proposal falters.

That assumption holds that the governor’s office knows how to fix the problem and will be able to do so, and I marvel at the lack of evidence offered in support of that claim. If they know how to turn such schools around, why aren’t they sharing that knowledge with local officials already? Where is the evidence that the governor’s office somehow has the expertise and commitment needed to run public schools, and to run them more efficiently and with better outcomes than locally elected officials?

Furthermore, why run them out of the governor’s office? We already have a state Department of Education, but Deal’s decision to run the state “Opportunity School District” out of his office suggests a serious lack of confidence in the agency designated to handle education. If Deal has no confidence in that state agency, maybe he ought to start his reform efforts closer to home.

Earlier this year, the state Department of Education bungled its online Milestone testing of public-school students across the state so badly that the results basically had to be ignored. And look at how the state performs the duties that already are its core responsibility. The food-stamps application system, run by the Division of Family and Children’s Services, has been so badly managed for years that federal officials had to intervene to force reform to meet even minimal service levels. The same is true of the state’s mental-health delivery system, which has been under federal supervision for the past six years because of its inability to deliver basic services.

One of the models cited by Deal is that of Tennessee’s Achievement School District, begun as a result of a 2010 state law. The goal in Tennessee was to move schools performing in the lowest 5 percent into the top quartile within five years, but a recent study by Vanderbilt University showed that so far, there has been no improvement at all in schools taken over by the state. In contrast, comparable struggling schools identified for reform by local districts did show measurable improvement.

Nonetheless, a state takeover of local schools has become the cool thing to do among Republicans, with GOP legislators in neighboring North Carolina also approving their own version of the program. As backers there note, they propose a takeover of just five schools, explaining that Tennessee law — which allows a takeover of as many as 30 schools — tried to do too much, too quickly.

If Deal’s proposal is approved by voters, he would be authorized to seize governance of as many as 100 schools.