Changes urged, takeover threatened: Schools get contradictory messages

The day after approving England’s exit from the European Union, many voters in that country resorted to Internet searches to figure out what the EU was and what it actually did. I suspect we’ll see similar Googling after the November election in which Georgia voters are likely to approve Gov. Nathan Deal’s Opportunity School District.

Because Georgia voters won’t get any clues about the OSD from the kindly referendum wording they’ll find on their ballots: “Shall the Constitution of Georgia be amended to allow the state to intervene in chronically failing public schools in order to improve student performance?”

That benign ballot question doesn’t make clear the OSD will be able to forcibly come into a district, take over a school and reconfigure it. Nor does that deliberately vague ballot language reveal the proposed OSD is most closely aligned with a state takeover model in Tennessee, which has met with community opposition and failed to improve academic outcomes.

At a recent education conference, Vanderbilt University researcher Gary Henry discussed his evaluation of the Tennessee Achievement District, telling reporters, “We’re just not seeing the data that this is helping kids.”

Georgia has a history of jumping on education bandwagons, even if those wagons appear to be losing their wheels and barrelling toward a cliff. It’s understandable Deal and the General Assembly want to improve school quality. The pace of economic change today demands an agile workforce that is not only competent, but capable of learning new and sophisticated skills quickly. That requires an education beyond a high school diploma.

But state leaders have chosen contradictory paths to reform. On one hand, they imposed a 2015 deadline for all Georgia districts to pick a flexibility plan to foster greater innovation; districts had to reinvent themselves as some form of charter (system charter, system of charter clusters or system of charter schools) or what’s called “Investing in Educational Excellence” system, or IE2.

Most districts were in the early stages of using this newly granted flexibility when Deal announced his OSD proposal. Statewide, 127 schools are eligible for state takeover based on test scores, down from 139 last year. About half are in metro Atlanta. DeKalb County has the most with 28; Atlanta has 22, including some that have closed or will be merged or closed next year. Fulton County has 10 schools, while three of the eligible schools are state-approved charters.

As Atlanta Public Schools school chief Meria Carstarphen said in a meeting with the AJC, “The state gives us mixed guidance. They tell us you have to choose a flexibility model and then tell us you are a state takeover site.”

When districts complained about his state takeover idea, Deal told them, “What’s your idea? If you have no idea, you’re saying you’re satisfied with having failing schools in Georgia.”

But, in fact, many districts are putting new ideas in place to improve their schools, most notably Atlanta and DeKalb. Both have new, high-energy superintendents who are reorganizing and re-invigorating their schools, and Carstarphen and DeKalb’s Steve Green deserve the opportunity to stay the course for a while without state intrusion.

If Deal wants to fix education, he ought to start with a program already controlled by the state — annual Milestones testing. Georgia is one of four states that experienced significant testing glitches two years in a row.

In fact, voters ought to Google “Georgia testing problems” before the November election. It may sour them on the OSD, no matter how sweetly worded the referendum question appears on the ballot.

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