The next phase of Nathan Deal's school takeover campaign now begins

The roots of Gov. Nathan Deal's school takeover plan are now in the books. Now he must persuade voters to support the initiative in a referendum next year.

The governor Tuesday signed legislation that forms the framework of his signature legislative effort. But it must be approved by a majority of voters in November 2016 to take effect.

Senate Bill 133 lays out specifics of how Deal's school takeover plan would work. It is the foundation of his proposal for a statewide "Opportunity School District" that gives the state the power to seize control over failing schools, convert them into charters or shut them down.

The district's superintendent, who would report to the governor, would have the power to fire the schools' principals, transfer teachers and change what students learn. The district could take in as many as 100 schools.

Schools are deemed eligible for takeover if they scored below 60 for three consecutive years on a state performance index; the governor's office has identified about 139 on the list, including more than 60 in metro Atlanta.

The governor and his allies have cast his constitutional amendment as a moral imperative. Deal said Tuesday that victims of the state's worst schools "become the fodder of our prison system."

Leading Democrats and some influential educators groups have staunchly opposed the plan, fearing it gives the governor's office far too much power. DuBose Porter, who heads the Democratic Party of Georgia, said the fate of struggling schools shouldn't rest in the hands of a governor who "has shown such a complete disregard for education and its funding."

The plan, which passed both chambers by razor-thin margins, now hinges on a 24-word question that will be placed on ballots next year: “Shall the Constitution of Georgia be amended to allow the state to intervene in chronically failing public schools in order to improve student performance?”

Deal and his allies are already preparing what could be a multimillion-dollar campaign to push his top second-term initiative across the finish line. And critics have vowed to mount a counteroffensive.