Georgia unveils statewide plan to take over failing schools

Gov. Nathan Deal would create a statewide school district and give his office broad new powers to take over failing schools, under a plan unveiled Wednesday ahead of a likely contentious battle toward approval.

The plan, which can be found here, would allow the state to take control of failing schools, close them, partner with local school districts to run them or convert them into charter schools.

It would for the first time ever create a statewide “Opportunity School District” to oversee the program — led by a superintendent who would report directly to the governor and not the state education department.

“When we talk about helping failing schools, we’re talking about rescuing children,” Deal said. “I stand firm on the principle that every child can learn, and I stand equally firm in the belief that the status quo isn’t working.”

To determine which schools would be targeted, the plan defines “persistently failing schools” as those scoring below 60 for three years in a row on the College and Career Performance Index – which is essentially the state’s annual report card for school performance.

More than 140 schools, including at least a dozen in metro Atlanta, could be eligible — although annual enrollment would be limited to up to 20 schools a year.

“What is the definition of insanity? Continuing to do the same thing and expecting a different result,” said state Sen. Butch Miller, R-Gainesville, who will take a lead role carrying the legislation at the state Capitol. “It’s not a one-size-fits-all. You would have a different address, a different business plan for each individual school. And I would say to those educators who might push back and challenge this that, if they know what to do why aren’t they doing it?”

For Deal, it is his signature education proposal of the year, one that comes after weeks of quiet meetings with legislators who must overwhelming pass the initiative before it would be put to voters on the 2016 ballot.

That’s because Deal has framed it as a constitutional amendment, needing two-thirds support in each of the House and the Senate. Opposition, however, is already mounting.

“This is an educational mirage,” said Senate Minority Leader Steve Henson, D-Tucker. “Yes, we have a problem with failing schools and yes, we need to correct the problem.”

“But we don’t accomplish this by privatizing the public school system, denying equal education to all Georgia students and by refusing to address the fact that we have short-changed our state education system by $8 billion over the past 12 years,” Henson said.

Democrats are expected to unveil a counter-proposal as soon as next week.

The Opportunity School District would be capped at 100 overall. Schools would stay in the district for a minimum of five years and not more than 10 years. Those provisions aim to address critics who worry the proposal gives the governor’s office too much power and includes no exit plan for schools that recover.

The legislation comes as Deal has put off other campaign promises, such as a vow to overhaul the 30-year-old education funding formula, until next year. His staff has met legislators to let them air out their concerns, and he plans to lead a bipartisan delegation this month to Louisiana, which has a similar statewide plan.

Still, it’s been a slow roll-out for the plan, introduced more than a quarter of the way through a 40-day legislative session that’s expected to end April 2.

Opposition has stirred since he first outlined the idea to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Superintendent Richard Woods, whose office could be marginalized by the move, has hinted at his discomfort.

Some conservatives who viewed the voluntary national Common Core education guidelines as a federal intrusion in school policy would be confronted with a new debate about a local district’s rights.

And several key Democrats have cast the proposal as a sweeping giveaway to the governor’s office.

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