Expert says Opportunity School District needs more money for success

Money matters when it comes to turning around low-performing schools, an educational expert says, and Gov. Nathan Deal’s proposed Opportunity School District does not appear to bring more to the table.

“As I read the Opportunity School District legislation, there’s no provision for additional resources to come into those schools,” said Gary Henry, a Vanderbilt professor who has studied school turnaround efforts in North Carolina and Tennessee. Wherever academic gains occurred, improved teacher quality was apparently the reason, he said, as turnaround schools shook up their staff and brought in teachers with superior track records.

Those teachers typically cost more. In Memphis, replacement teachers earned as much as a fifth more than peers at schools outside the turnaround program, said Henry, who was speaking to a gathering of educational leaders at the University of Georgia on Friday.

It’s up to Georgia voters whether to create the Opportunity School District, which is on the Nov. 8 ballot as Amendment 1. Passage will change the state constitution to allow the state to take over “failing” schools and the local dollars that come with them.

Asked if he would vote for the referendum, Henry elicited laughter. “That’s all the time we have,” he joked. It was an acknowledgement of the political tensions surrounding a ballot item that has drawn opposition from school boards, teachers, the PTA and the NAACP.

Then, he got serious, telling the crowd: “I would be uncomfortable saying yes given the current provisions” of the law. He said it didn’t appear to him that students in schools taken by the Opportunity School District would be better off.

Gov. Nathan Deal leaned on lawmakers to get the Opportunity School District through the General Assembly last year. He hasn’t said whether schools that get taken would get extra resources. The law says they’ll either be shuttered, run by the state with or without local district participation or converted to charter schools.

His office was asked for a response to Henry’s comments, as was the pro-referendum campaign group Opportunity for All Georgia Students, which is run by a former Deal aide.

Neither had an immediate response, but Deal has repeatedly said that the schools targeted for takeover have been failing children, in some cases, for generations, contributing to a cycle of poverty. It’s time to try something different, he has said.

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