Deal’s school takeover plan heads to ballots after another tight vote

A plan to give the governor’s office sweeping new powers to take over failing Georgia schools will land on ballots next year after surviving a second razor-thin legislative vote Wednesday despite criticism that it gives the state too much control over local classrooms.

House lawmakers voted 121-47 to approve Gov. Nathan Deal’s proposal to create a statewide “Opportunity School District” with the power to fire principals, transfer teachers and change what students are learning at failing schools. It narrowly crossed the two-thirds threshold it needed, following an equally tight Senate vote earlier this month.

The plan, Deal’s top initiative this session, was his most significant legislative victory since his 2010 election. But his fight is just beginning. He and his allies must persuade a majority of voters to approve the plan in a November 2016 referendum.

“We have an absolute constitutional obligation to intervene and do all within our means to reverse our failure,” House Majority Leader Larry O’Neal said. “We have a measure before us today that at least gives us a fighting chance to turn cultures of failure into cultures of success.”

The proposal passed despite misgivings from a handful of conservative Republicans who said they viewed it as another bureaucracy and an intrusion on local rights. It also overcame opposition from Democrats, whose leaders took a united stand against the proposal even as a band of rank-and-file members revolted.

“We have failed to resource our children and our teachers, but yet we hold them accountable,” said state Rep. Carolyn Hugley, D-Columbus. “This is not good policy, and this is not a fair question.”

The governor has pushed other sweeping plans, such as changes to the criminal justice system and the HOPE Scholarship. But he’s never taken on a fight as big as his pitch to create a statewide district that can seize control over failing schools, convert them into charters or shut them down.

Senate Resolution 287 approves 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?”

Hours later, the House approved Senate Bill 133, which lays out specifics of how the plan would work, in a 108-53 vote. House and Senate lawmakers must hash out minor differences before it reaches Deal’s desk.

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