Deal signs school turnaround legislation, calls it a ‘dramatic step’

Gov. Nathan Deal speaks before signing several bills, including House Bill 338, in Atlanta, on Thursday. The new law details how the state will intervene in the lowest-performing schools. (DAVID BARNES / DAVID.BARNES@AJC.COM)

Gov. Nathan Deal speaks before signing several bills, including House Bill 338, in Atlanta, on Thursday. The new law details how the state will intervene in the lowest-performing schools. (DAVID BARNES / DAVID.BARNES@AJC.COM)

With the stroke of a pen Thursday, Gov. Nathan Deal initiated an experiment that could yield innovative strategies for improving Georgia’s lowest-performing schools or saddle him and future governors with an intractable problem.

House Bill 338 was not Deal’s first choice of tools to fix schools. Last year, voters rejected a referendum on establishing a much more powerful statewide Opportunity School District. Had that constitutional amendment passed, Deal would have had authority to seize “chronically failing” schools, put them into that special district and appoint someone to run them.

The First Priority Act, the new law, instead leaves the governor a step removed from the person who will run the state’s turnaround effort, and it relies on collaboration — and financial pressure — rather than on a clear constitutional mandate.

Deal appeared to acknowledge this, saying after the signing that other governors had tried to get similar legislation passed, and “it’s been not as successful as any of us would like to have had it.”

Still, he called it “a dramatic step forward” and commended lawmakers and educator interest groups for collaborating on the final product. “It always takes compromise in order to get a piece of legislation like this across the finish line,” Deal said.

The law creates a Chief Turnaround Officer who will have to navigate between political power centers. More diplomat than dictator, the chief will report to the state board of education but will be an employee of — and rely on resources from — the Georgia Department of Education while also getting funding from the Governor's Office of Student Achievement.

The governor and lawmakers added $1 million to the education department’s budget to fund this, and directed the governor’s student achievement office to allocate another $1.25 million from an “innovation” grant program.

The education board is appointed by the governor while the education department and its hundreds of employees is led by Superintendent Richard Woods who, like the governor, was elected to a four-year term. The turnaround chief will have to work through local school boards, since he or she will not have unilateral authority to seize their schools.

Instead, the school districts themselves will have to consent. They will have little choice, however, since those that refuse will have to comply with costly mandates that they are currently able to escape through “flexibility” contracts with the state. Those contracts will be amended to allow the intervention.

“This bill is about working through problems,” Sen. Lindsey Tippins, R-Marietta, told fellow lawmakers during the legislative session. The chairman of the Senate Education and Youth Committee, who led his chamber’s vetting of the bill by Rep. Kevin Tanner, R-Dawsonville, said this new approach is about working “alongside” local educators to improve their schools rather than taking them over and running them as a state entity.

The affected schools will not be absorbed into a state district, but could be turned over to nonprofit managers or converted to charter schools.

Georgia’s largest teacher advocacy group, the Professional Association of Georgia Educators, opposed the Opportunity School District but is satisfied with this new approach.

Margaret Ciccarelli, the group’s chief lobbyist, said lawmakers, including chief author Tanner, made amendments requested by educators. “State policy is improved when all parties come to the table,” she said. “We might not all get what we want, but working together we can all help struggling schools.”

Some still saw H.B. 338 as an attack on local school leadership, likening it to last year’s failed constitutional amendment.

Though the new bill passed with bipartisan support in the House, it met significant Democratic opposition in the Senate. Sen. Donzella James, D-Atlanta, noted that the constitutional amendment was opposed by 59 percent of voters. It was widely seen as an assault on local control of education. “The people of Georgia spoke loud and clear,” she said, before voting against H.B. 338.

With the new law, the first big thing to happen will be hiring the turnaround chief. Before that, the people who will help pick and vet that person must be selected. The law empanels an advisory council with eight members selected by teacher, parent and school leader organizations, plus two political appointees each from the chiefs of the Georgia Senate and House of Representatives.

The state education board will make the actual hire of the turnaround chief and work with him or her on choosing schools and intervention strategies.

It is “a tremendous responsibility that has been placed on the state board of education,” said Mike Royal, the board’s chairman. He said the board will be “very involved” in a national search for the turnaround chief.

The first step is to call a meeting of the advisory council. The legislation gives Royal 30 days from the date that Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle and Rep. David Ralston name their four appointees. He doesn’t want to wait and said he’d be making calls immediately to learn who will serve on the council.

Royal would not commit to a timeline for anything.He noted the list of schools eligible for intervention cannot be created until the state education department finalizes the criteria for measuring performance, since the pool of targeted schools must come from the bottom 5 percent of performers.

States are already obliged by the new federal education law, approved in December 2015, to help their lowest-performing schools. The state education department isn’t expected to submit its criteria to Washington until September.

The governor’s student achievement office will draw up the list of eligible schools using those criteria, then the chief will have to work with both that agency and Woods’ education department in targeting specific schools.