Deal seeks more state clout over school districts

Even as some critics deride him as a “dictator” for his recent intervention in DeKalb County, Gov. Nathan Deal is quietly laying the groundwork to give the state more control over struggling local school boards.

He’s asked lawmakers to give the state a “broader base for interventional action” in struggling school systems. The overhaul could change how accrediting agencies such as the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools fit into the mechanism for monitoring Georgia’s school districts.

“The public probably expects and thinks we have a broader basis for intervention, broader than just governance,” Deal said at a recent event with business leaders. “They think since the state spends almost half of its revenue on education, that we would have some way of holding schools accountable for education issues. That’s not the case.”

Deal took considerable criticism by wading into DeKalb after SACS found the local board to be a dysfunctional mess. He says DeKalb’s problems aren’t unique, but Georgia law sets up an unwieldy “one-legged stool” that only allows the state to intervene over governance issues rather than, say, academics.

That legislation he wants will start taking shape after the 40-day legislative session ends Thursday. But some lawmakers are already raising questions about the role SACS will play in a new setup. House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams said more state oversight is needed in the accreditation process.

“Accreditation is a necessary part of maintaining a school system, but it doesn’t abdicate our responsibility to monitor the school systems,” said Abrams, who said the state has done a “poor job” in tracking school performance.

SACS is not the only accrediting agency in Georgia, but it is the dominant one. The Alpharetta-based company monitors more than 2,500 Georgia schools and 140 of the state’s 180 public school districts. In recent years, SACS has drawn increased scrutiny for a string of high-profile decisions involving Georgia schools, including a 2008 decision that removed Clayton County’s school accreditation.

SACS has placed several Georgia school districts on probation, saddling DeKalb with that unwanted distinction in December with a report depicting a frustratingly dysfunctional school board. Its report helped prod Deal to suspend and then replace six board members this month.

It still seems likely that SACS will play an important role in whatever plan legislators hash out with Deal. Leading lawmakers have shown little appetite for creating a new state-run accrediting agency, and few rivals have the resources or clout to readily step in.

“We cannot visit schools frequently enough to know all the problems,” said Carvin Brown, the executive director of the Georgia Accrediting Commission, a smaller outfit that scrutinizes hundreds of Georgia schools. “It’s not as good accountability as I like.”

Mark Elgart, who heads the firm that oversees SACS, said he would cooperate with the governor and lawmakers. He said he supports allowing broader state powers to rein in struggling schools, but the more difficult part may be sustaining that intervention.

“That’s where the state has to be thoughtful about how they amend the law and the mechanisms for intervention. Some states have struggled with the capacity to do it,” said Elgart. “Once you go in and intervene, you take some ownership. And if you aren’t positioned to do it, you’re in trouble.”

Critics say SACS focuses its review too much on school board governance rather than other essential measures for students. John Trotter, a former educator who is now a teachers’ advocate, said the agency does that because it would take more resources to monitor and influence measures such as student achievement.

“SACS is only dealing with governance because that’s so easy to control,” said Trotter, chairman of the Metro Association of Classroom Educators.

Ideas are already flying over what the state can do to turn around flagging school districts.

Nancy Jester, one of the suspended DeKalb board members, suggested threatening under-performing districts with funding cuts or offering students flexibility to take their state education subsidy with them to a better-performing system or charter school. And she said the state education department and the Governor’s Office of Student Achievement should be given more vigorous oversight roles.

“They warehouse all this information, to what end?” said Jester.

But the specter of increased state intervention has split many parents and activists who don’t want their duly elected officials ousted by the state — but also want an emergency trigger if their representatives can’t get their act together.

“I have an issue with any imposition on voting rights,” said Marcia Coward, who heads the DeKalb County Council of PTAs. “But my bigger issue and bigger passion lies with children and what is best for them. And that’s why I support state intervention.”

Any debate over those roles should inevitably involve SACS, which she said wields too much influence.

“We need to look at alternate accreditation processes,” she said. “What really froths me is that our system is put in jeopardy by an organization that finds issues that have absolutely nothing to do with student achievement.”

Ernest Brown, another DeKalb parent who has closely followed SACS’ role in the county over the past decade, said he would like to see any measures of school system performance focus more on student achievement.

“There’s a lot of concern about factoring in student performance because you could have a successful board of education as far as governance, but a failing or not progressing school system academically,” Brown said.

Deal and his allies are hoping to start building consensus among educators unsettled by the prospect of expanded state powers.

“We already have a state school superintendent, state Department of Education and state Board of Education who are empowered to intervene when a local system is getting off track with regard to finance or student achievement,” said Tim Callahan of the Professional Association of Georgia Educators. “I don’t know that it would be helpful for the governor to ‘eclipse’ those parties.”

They must also overcome opposition from lawmakers and other critics who argue that state intervention disenfranchises voters. That’s a concern highlighted by members of the NAACP and other civil rights groups who called the governor a “dictator” when he suspended and replaced the six DeKalb members.

“He has acted harshly,” said state Rep. Dee Dawkins-Haigler, who heads Georgia’s Legislative Black Caucus. “I think that the people of DeKalb have spoken: If they want them to be removed they should either have a recall or vote them out in 2014.”

Striking a balance between local control and state involvement won’t be easy, said House Majority Whip Edward Lindsey. He said lawmakers intend to address “legitimate concerns” about the role of SACS in the process and the executive branch’s role in school systems.

“My biggest concern, though, is a child trapped in a low-performing school,” he said.

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