Since Georgia voters rejected a constitutional amendment empowering the state to take over schools, the General Assembly is now attempting a legislative route.

Legislators push what voters didn’t want; new bureaucracy unneeded

After the stinging defeat of the Opportunity School District in November, lawmakers are now attempting to achieve with legislation what voters would not allow through the ballot.

House Bill 338 could be described as a kinder, gentler OSD, where the state does not big-foot its way into seizing control of struggling schools but rather dances a delicate waltz with willing districts. Yes, the state could eventually compel dire remedies for schools that fail to improve — replace staff or bring in charter management — but the path is less direct in HB 338 than it was with the OSD model.

The bill gives Georgia a new acronym, CTO or chief turnaround officer, a sort of shadow state superintendent with some of the same responsibility for improving the lowest-performing schools. The CTO would report to the state Board of Education, whose members are appointed by the governor. The bill also calls for new education study committees because apparently, like umbrellas and sunglasses, you can never have too many.

So, why does Georgia need another well-paid bureaucrat to do what citizens already pay an elected school superintendent to do? (The salary for the CTO is not set in the legislation, but it will be executive-level compensation.)

Probably the same reason we have a Governor’s Office of Student Achievement, a shadow education agency charged with tasks that could be handled by the state Department of Education but aren’t. Historically, governors frustrated with DOE leadership have resorted to work-arounds.

At a House Education meeting Thursday, the bill’s sponsor, state Rep. Kevin Tanner, R-Dawsonville, presented tweaks that delineate what the CTO can and can’t do; some of the changes appeared efforts to avoid stepping on the toes of Superintendent Richard Woods and soothe the criticisms the bill overreached..

But the changes don’t resolve the fatal flaw in HB 338. It’s a confusing and overly layered piece of legislation predicated on the dubious assumption that a CTO in Atlanta with a team of imported “turnaround coaches” will know what a school in South Georgia or south Fulton needs.

The bill promotes some key initiatives, including a leadership academy for principals. But Gwinnett already has an excellent leadership academy. Why can’t DOE collaborate with Gwinnett to design a statewide training program? Instead, the bill calls for yet another advisory committee to study the problem and provide recommendations about how to start a leadership academy. (Save the gas money. Just call Gwinnett.)

Some lawmakers seemed puzzled — with reason — over the rationale for this unwieldy bill. For example, state Rep. Scott Hilton, R-Peachtree Corners, wondered if the state already had school improvement experts it could tap.

“There is in the Department of Education a group that deals with school improvement. They not only focus on the lowest-performing schools that we’re talking about but they work with all schools,” said Tanner, adding that DeKalb and Gwinnett deploy their own improvement “strike forces” to assist struggling schools.

Yet, Tanner defended the bill’s intention to import expertise, citing the importance of a national search for turnaround experts “whose only job will be working with these schools and working with the community for these wraparound services.”

After Tanner’s response, state Rep. Doreen Carter, D-Lithonia, stated the obvious: “With what you just shared with us, it seems this turnaround CTO belongs under the Department of Education.”

Other lawmakers pointed out current law contains levers that allow the state to intercede in failing schools. House Ed Chairman Brooks Coleman, R-Duluth, agreed, but said it wasn’t happening.

“Everything there is already in existing law,” said Coleman. “The state Board of Education could do that now with the Department of Education. We tried to stay within existing law with what we’re doing. They could go in right now — but I am just going to say it — they are not doing it. So we’re going to see it is done.”

It would seem cheaper and quicker to prod the state board and DOE to use the authority they already have rather than spawn a new bureaucracy.

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