Model for Georgia’s Opportunity School District shows mixed results

Georgia’s constitutional amendment to allow the state to take control of low-performing schools is modeled after an experiment in another state that has seen lackluster results but may have indirectly improved schools.

Despite the middling academic performance of Tennessee’s Achievement School District, it appears to have pressured local school leaders to figure out how to improve their worst schools on their own, something some Georgia districts are now doing too.

If Georgia voters approve Amendment 1 on Nov. 8, it would empower an appointee of the governor to seize “chronically failing” schools and the local tax dollars that support them. Those schools would either be shuttered, run directly by a new statewide district (possibly involving local districts) or converted to charter schools under independent management.

Supporters point to New Orleans, where test scores, graduation rates and college entry rates rose after schools were taken from local control.

They also mention Tennessee’s takeover, but a leading education researcher from that state says Tennessee should be seen as the model for Georgia’s proposed Opportunity School District. Vanderbilt professor Gary Henry, said New Orleans is less relevant because it offered parents the choice to send their kids to any school in the district, while neither Tennessee nor Georgia do.

Georgia’s proposal would follow Tennessee’s model, taking over schools and, in some cases, converting them to charter schools. But unlike traditional charter schools, these new hybrid charter-neighborhood schools cannot recruit parents from across a school district. One criticism of charters is that they skim the most motivated parents, who push their children to excel and make the charter schools look better.

In Tennessee’s Achievement district, nearly all the failing schools were placed in the control of charters, and none of those schools showed significant improvement in three tracked subjects over three years, Henry said. The handful of schools run directly by the state did somewhat better, but the Achievement district’s overall performance hardly budged.

Margo Roen, the Achievement district’s chief of New Schools and Accountability, said the district needs time to see results. It took over its first schools in 2012. “In these first few years we have seen many wins as well as areas where we need to improve.”

Schools that were taken over more than a year ago are doing better, she said, achieving the state’s highest “growth” rating, which is based on state test results.

Henry did see gains among some age groups and over certain periods of time, but they were balanced by losses. He agrees that it could be too early to see the effect of the turnaround, but he said another experiment in his state has had much quicker and consistently stronger results. The state established what is seen as a competing school turnaround model called the “Innovation Zone,” or “iZone,” where the lowest-performing schools remain under local control but with more autonomy.

The Tennessee State Collaborative on Reforming Education, an independent research and advocacy group, agrees the iZone outperformed the Achievement district but notes that the iZone schools remain among the lowest-performing in the state.

Henry said both sets of schools benefited from more money. Tennessee got half a billion dollars in federal grants to improve its schools.

The Memphis iZone boosted pay by as much as 19 percent to attract teachers with a history of producing higher test scores, and those teachers tended to stay put. The Achievement district also hired highly-rated teachers, but could not hang on to them.

“We believe this teacher talent story is the story of the success in the Memphis iZone,” Henry said.

As in Tennessee, Georgia’s Opportunity district would have authority to replace teachers and school administrators. But it’s unclear whether the Opportunity district could afford to raise pay. Georgia has far fewer federal dollars to work with, and the Opportunity district legislation offers no additional funding, though supporters say the back-office costs of the statewide district would be proportionately lower than in local districts, freeing additional dollars for the classroom.

Sen. Butch Miller, R-Gainesville, one of the chief authors of Georgia’s proposed constitutional amendment, downplayed the likelihood of wholesale staff changes, saying the focus was on changing the way poor-performing schools are run rather than replacing the teachers. The intent is to give teachers “better support, better opportunity, better materials,” he said. “In my eyes, I don’t think it’s a teacher issue.”

Even if Georgia voters reject the Opportunity district, it may already have had an effect. Atlanta Public Schools hired charter management organizations to try to turn around some of its lowest-performing schools, and Fulton County Schools is pouring additional time and attention into its schools that could be taken over.

“We’ve had to react,” said Jeff Rose, the new Fulton superintendent. “It is pushing us to support those schools.”

That is exactly the reaction Gov. Nathan Deal says he wants to see: local districts accommodating powerless populations that he says have been neglected for decades.

“We have almost 68,000 students who are required by law to attend a chronically-failing school,” he said at an education conference in September. They are “by and large voiceless” and in poverty. “How many of those who have children in chronically failing schools do you think would be put on the agenda to speak and complain at a local school board meeting,” he said. “Somebody needs to help them.”

Henry said most low-performing schools suffer from poverty and neglect, and in Tennessee the threat of a state takeover created the political will to give them more attention and money.

“It appears that it’s not necessary to remove schools from a local district,” he said, “but local districts do not seem to exert the will to improve these schools without external pressure.”

7 things to know about the Opportunity School District.

And you can find information about your school, such as test scores, graduation rates and school climate rating at the Ultimate Atlanta School Guide.

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