New plan for ‘lowest-performing’ schools advancing through Legislature

After failing to persuade Georgia voters last year to let the state take over low-performing schools, lawmakers are proposing what they describe as a “collaborative” alternative to avoid another bruising battle.

Where Amendment 1 would have empowered an appointee of the governor to seize “chronically failing” schools and local tax dollars, this new legislation relies on school districts’ consent to state intervention.

Local control of schools was the main theme of the campaign against the constitutional amendmentwhich was rejected in November by 59.9 percent of voters. The campaign took on a racial tone, too, as black civil rights leaders accused Deal and state leaders of trying to turn over schools to for-profit operators.

House Bill 338, the new plan, would still allow schools to be removed from district control and placed under different management, including other school districts or charter managers, but it explicitly states that only nonprofits would be involved.

Its chief author, Rep. Kevin Tanner, R-Dawsonville, said the election fight made it clear that school improvement will require teamwork and community agreement. He has tried to build consensus, even meeting with Democratic lawmakers and incorporating their requested amendments, though he noted he didn’t need their votes to get the bill through the GOP-controlled House.

Gov. Nathan Deal indicated after the referendum’s defeat that he wasn’t going to drop the issue, but Tanner said this bill is not the governor’s, though Deal was among the people he consulted and his office tweeted statements of support when Tanner introduced the measure. All the co-sponsors are ranking Republicans, and with the GOP also controlling the Senate, it has a good chance of becoming law.

The defeated referendum for an Opportunity School District, or OSD, would have established an office for a second state superintendent, who, unlike the current elected one, would have answered to the governor. The new legislation establishes a “chief turnaround officer,” who would be part of the state Department of Education overseen by the elected state superintendent. However, the turnaround chief would answer to the state education board, which is appointed by the governor.

Tanner wants bipartisan support, and agreed to amend his bill Thursday to say school districts won’t lose control over schools as long as officials follow all the steps in a turnaround plan drawn up with the turnaround chief. But he would not grant Democrats’ request to have that chief report to the state superintendent instead of the governor’s school board. Georgia’s Superintendent, Richard Woods, also lobbied to have the new official report to him.

Criticism has mostly been muted, with most of the OSD opponents deciding to work quietly with Tanner to sand off elements of the bill that they did not like. But some outside the process haven’t been holding back. Louis Elrod, who led the anti-OSD campaign, called HB 338 “the governor’s new proposal” and said it is like Amendment 1 “with only minor window dressing.”

And Rep. Sandra Scott, D-Rex, who was among four Clayton County school board members former Gov. Sonny Perdue removed when that district lost its accreditation in 2008, said she didn’t like how this bill extends the governor’s authority to also remove locally elected boards in districts where at least half the schools are low-performing for more than half a decade. “I have a problem with removing people from elected office when they’re voted in by the people,” Scott said.

The jostling over the turnaround chief’s chain of command stems from a years-long struggle between two power centers: the education department and the governor’s office. A succession of governors have been gathering influence over education, and the OSD would have solidified that power. Critics of the education department contend it has not been aggressive enough with low-performing schools.

They note that the state has already given the superintendent and his agency authority to go into schools and replace teachers and principals or even bring in charter managers. Questions about the constitutionality of that law gave proponents of Amendment 1 another reason to change the constitution, but some say the existing law still should have been used more than it has been.

Rep. Brooks Coleman, R-Duluth, who leads the House Education Committee, which unanimously approved HB 338 Thursday, said, “They could go in right now, but I’m just going to say, they’re not doing it. So we’re going to see that it’s done.”

This new proposal gets around the constitutional uncertainty by asking school districts to agree to let the state intervene.

And why would they do that, especially when this legislation grants the governor more grounds to remove school board members?

The answer: because districts that refuse would face consequences that could be costly.

In recent years, all but two Georgia school districts have signed a contract providing for “flexibility.” The state waives a variety of costly requirements, such as the minimum number of school days or the maximum student-teacher ratios. The contracts bind the districts to certain academic outcomes at the risk of losing the waivers.

HB 338 compels districts to amend their contacts to allow state intervention in schools after two years of “unacceptable” performance, as determined by the Governor’s Office of Student Achievement and the turnaround chief, under the threat of losing the waivers. Tanner said the state school board could already amend the contracts, but he wants to help local districts fix their schools first. His bill calls for “turnaround coaches” who would review community issues that undermine school performance, such as poverty, and work closely with district officials and school leaders to address them. Individual students would be assessed and plans would be drawn up to help each one.

The turnaround chief would target schools for intervention based on their performance on state measures and on consultations with statewide education groups and the affected local districts.

“We’ve tried to make this a collaborative process in order to get buy-in,” Tanner said. He also said the turnaround officer has to have the credibility to ask lawmakers and the governor for money, since some turnaround work could be costly.

Tanner describes his bill as a way to help schools, but he also had a stern message for them: “Accountability is coming.”

No funding source has been identified, but another bill this year, House Bill 237, by Coleman and others, would establish a tax credit system that lets taxpayers offset the amount they owe the state with contributions to a school “innovation” grant program. Schools targeted under HB 338 could tap that money, and Tanner said he’s talked with Deal about other potential funding.

When Rep. Tommy Benton, R-Jefferson, asked during Thursday’s committee hearing about the turnaround chief’s salary and how much this whole proposal is going to cost, Tanner said the governor’s budgeting team was working on it, “and they’re going to reallocate the necessary funds to make that work.” Benton, who also sits on the House appropriations committee, then asked, “From whose budget?”

Tanner told him that would be a question for the governor.

A vote by the full House is expected next week, and then HB 338 goes to the Senate.

What the bill proposes

• Creating a new position for a state official to identify Georgia’s “lowest-performing” schools.

• The new “chief turnaround officer,” who would be in the governor’s chain of command, would help develop improvement plans for those schools.

• If after two years, the schools have not improved and their leaders have not followed the plan, then the officer would have authority to intervene directly.

• The allowable interventions range from replacing school staff to taking over schools and handing them to a “successful” school district or to a private nonprofit, or forcing the district to bus students to a a different school.

• In school districts where at least half the schools have an “unacceptable rating” for at least five years, the governor could suspend school board members.

Contrasts to earlier Opportunity School District proposal

• The official responsible for making decisions about unacceptable schools would not answer directly to the governor, as was the case with the OSD, but to the state board of education, whose members the governor appoints.

• The OSD would have taken local tax dollars; the new proposal doesn’t do that.

• Amendment 1 would have allowed schools to be turned over to for-profit managers; the new legislation specifies “nonprofit.”