‘Chronically failing’ schools now Georgia’s ‘first priority’

Sen. Lindsey Tippins, R-Marietta, (left) shakes hands with Rep. Kevin Tanner, R-Dawsonville, after Senate passage Friday of Tanner’s school turnaround legislation, House Bill 338. It’s the General Assembly’s answer to voter rejection of the Opportunity School District constitutional amendment in November.

Sen. Lindsey Tippins, R-Marietta, (left) shakes hands with Rep. Kevin Tanner, R-Dawsonville, after Senate passage Friday of Tanner’s school turnaround legislation, House Bill 338. It’s the General Assembly’s answer to voter rejection of the Opportunity School District constitutional amendment in November.

Georgia lawmakers, conscious of voters’ overwhelming rejection last year of Gov. Nathan Deal’s proposed state takeover of “chronically failing” schools, are seeking a kinder and gentler way for the state to intervene.

The term of art now, "turnaround," appears 84 times in House Bill 338, approved by a 2-1 margin by the state Senate Friday.

"It's about cooperation in schools not the occupation of schools," said Sen. Lindsey Tippins, R-Marietta, whose Education and Youth Committee worked closely on the bill with school lobbying groups and its chief author, Rep. Kevin Tanner, R-Dawsonville.

Voters in November rejected Deal’s referendum to establish and control an Opportunity School District, a kind of receivership district for schools deemed failures by an agency the governor controls. The opposition was grounded in a belief in local control.

This new legislation acknowledges that. It’s not a constitutional amendment establishing broad new state powers, so it does not need voter approval. Rather, it relies on collaboration with local school districts.

The legislation already passed the House of Representatives by an even more lopsided vote, and will return there for approval of some amendments added by Tippins’ education committee.

Tanner considers the amendments friendly, and was confident the House would approve them before sending the legislation to Deal to sign into law. The governor praised the House version and has made low-performing schools one of his top priorities.

A major criticism of the bill, a lack of funding to assist in improving schools, was at least partially addressed Tuesday. Deal got about $2.2 million added for school turnaround in the next fiscal year budget.

The First Priority Act, as the bill is now called, uses a mix of collegiality and arm-twisting to engage local school leaders.

State law has long allowed the state to step in with failing schools, but the Department of Education has not intervened to the full extent allowed. One reason for pushing last year’s proposed constitutional amendment was a need to clarify state authority to take control of schools, supporters of that effort said.

This new legislation gets the school districts to allow the state to come in by making them an offer they probably can’t refuse: All but two of Georgia’s 180 school districts have signed “flexibility” contracts giving them waivers from state mandates for things like maximum class sizes or a minimum number of annual school days. Those waivers save money, and school districts that refuse to cooperate would lose their waivers.

Intervention starts out as a collaboration on an improvement plan developed with help from a consultant. Schools, the consultant and the state will determine “the root causes” of low school performance.

The school districts must then implement the plans at their own expense, unless they can show financial hardship.

Failure to improve after three years will bring out the paddle. Among the punitive measures are termination of school staff, takeover by a nonprofit manager or by another school district, conversion to a charter school or a mandate to bus children to a higher-performing school.

Low-performing schools will be targeted from a list developed by the Georgia Department of Education and its chief, Superintendent Richard Woods.

Woods and Deal have been in a tug-of-war over control of the turnaround program, but both the House and Senate sided with Deal. The person who will run the state's turnaround program, the chief turnaround officer, will report to the Georgia Board of Education, which sets policy for the state education department and is appointed by the governor.

Most education lobbying groups — and Democrats — wanted the turnaround chief reporting to Woods, arguing that it made sense to embed the position within the chain of command of an elected official with a staff of hundreds of career educators.

Though HB 338 passed the Senate by an overwhelming 37-18, it was mostly a Republican affair: fewer than a third of Democrats voted for it, unlike in the House, where passage was bipartisan.

One difference was leadership: in the House, Rep. Stacey Abrams, D-Atlanta, the Democratic leader, urged her party to support the bill, and half the Democratic representatives did. But in the Senate, all of the Democrat leadership voted against it.

"Teachers will be fired," complained Sen. Vincent Fort, D-Atlanta, a "no" vote and the Democratic Whip who is running for mayor. He also criticized the $2.2 million Deal has committed to the turnaround, calling it "a pittance." And he criticized language in the bill that empowers the governor to suspend school board members in school districts where more than half the schools are low-performing for half a decade, saying it violates the "sanctity of the ballot" that put them in office.

Abrams, like Tanner, said she expects the amended bill to pass the House.

For her, the decision to delete a provision for state-funded private school scholarships, commonly referred to as vouchers, was pivotal. She called them a "scourge," against public schools because they siphon away tax dollars.

That was among the reasons that Tippins called on fellow senators to defeat a last-ditch attempt to add vouchers back to the bill from the Senate floor Friday.

That amendment by several Republicans led by Hunter Hill, R-Atlanta, failed, as did one that would have had the courts compel students to participate in any extra services provided by a turnaround program. A third, by Democratic Leader Steve Henson, D-Atlanta, tried to put the turnaround chief back under the state superintendent. It also failed.

It’s unclear when it will reach the House. If it passes, it will give Deal another chance to work on his goal of fixing schools, albeit with a weaker hand than he would have had if his constitutional amendment had won over voters.