Georgia changes course with school ‘turnaround’

It was so important in 2017 that the legislation creating an independent school turnaround office was named the “First Priority Act,” but three years later it is no longer a priority.

On the last day of the legislative session Friday, the House of Representatives passed Senate Bill 68, eliminating the independent Chief Turnaround Officer position.

It will still exist if Gov. Brian Kemp signs the bill, but in weakened form, subordinate to the state school superintendent.

“They have eliminated the program,” said Jimmy Stokes, chairman of the Education Turnaround Advisory Council, whose role was to consult with the turnaround chief and advise the state Board of Education on hiring one. The new legislation hands the hiring decision to the governor instead but says filling the position is at the governor’s discretion.

“So it’s there on paper if the governor ever wants to re-form it,” Stokes said. “But the governor was one of the chief critics of the program.”

So was state school Superintendent Richard Woods, who clashed with former Gov. Nathan Deal over control of the turnaround office.

The chief turnaround position was created after voters rejected Deal’s 2016 bid to create an “Opportunity School District.” Had voters approved it, the constitutional amendment would have allowed the state to seize “chronically failing” schools, removing them from the control of locally-elected school boards.

The subsequent legislation establishing the turnaround chief position relied instead on collaboration with school boards, with the possibility of intervention if schools didn’t improve.

The future of the office was already in question as Deal's second term neared its end in 2018. Some said it was redundant, noting that the state Department of Education led by Woods had its own program to help low-performing schools.

Eric Thomas, Georgia's first and so far only chief turnaround officer, resigned then sued the state this year after Woods' education agency opened an investigation into complaints about his management and the state Office of Inspector General opened its own investigation.

Now, the Georgia legislature has defunded the agency entirely — "to reflect program elimination," the new budget for the fiscal year starting in July says. Most of the agency's $2.2 million was absorbed by the state, but $700,000 was transferred to the school improvement program in Woods' agency.

Stokes said the program, while expensive, did teach Woods’ education department new “lessons” about improving schools.

“It is a solution whose time has passed,” he said.