New plan for struggling schools clears state House of Representatives

The red-faced argument over what to do about Georgia’s low-performing schools has become a polite discussion now that lawmakers are settling on a “collaborative” alternative to last year’s divisive plan.

Gov. Nathan Deal had pushed a constitutional amendment for a state takeover of schools — called the Opportunity School District — that was overwhelmingly rejected by voters in November. He quickly praised the new deal, House Bill 338, approved by the state House of Representatives Wednesday.

It establishes a new mechanism for state intervention in schools labeled “unacceptable” based on whatever measure the state chooses to use. This GOP-authored bill was embraced by about half of the chamber’s Democrats, easily passing by a vote of 138 to 37. Crucially, it identifies a problem outside school doors — poverty — and pledges to deal with it, something Democrats have long advocated for and complained that the Opportunity School District left unaddressed.

“It’s been built across party lines,” said the bill’s author, Rep. Kevin Tanner, of Dawsonville, who, like all the other sponsors, is a Republican. Tanner managed to build considerable goodwill by accepting amendments from people with differing views about schools and politics.

House Minority leader Stacey Abrams, D-Atlanta, who had opposed the November referendum, called Tanner’s new measure “a step in the right direction,” and urged her fellow Democrats to vote for it.

HB 338 brings educators and parents to the table to help draw up school improvement plans and it commits to doing something about the poverty that research overwhelmingly finds is an obstacle to student performance. While there’s no money in the bill, there is other legislation that establishes a grant funding stream that could be used in targeted schools. And by placing much of the control under the governor, Tanner said there would be “credibility” behind any specific requests for money for failing schools. “There needs to be more resources,” he said, “but it starts with accountability.”

Tanner earned kudos from Opportunity School District opponents by deleting a section of his bill that called for “vouchers” that would have paid to send public students to private schools. Abrams decried vouchers as a “scourge” against public schools, since they siphon away tax dollars.

The bill’s sponsors are all leaders in the House, indicating the level of commitment behind it. Deal said after the defeat of his Opportunity School District that he wasn’t going to drop the issue of failing schools. With his party also controlling the Senate, where HB 338 is headed next, there is a strong chance that he will soon have new tools to help these schools: The legislation creates the position of a “chief turnaround officer” who would report to the state education board, whose members are, in turn, political appointees of the governor. The bill also gives the Governor’s Office of Student Achievement authority to determine which schools merit attention.

Some did not like giving so much power to the governor.

Groups like the Professional Association of Georgia Educators, the state’s largest teacher advocacy organization, wanted the turnaround chief to report to the state superintendent, who is elected and leads the Department of Education, an agency filled with career educators. The group also doesn’t like the lack of specifics about identifying what the legislation refers to as “unacceptable” schools. PAGE is neutral on the bill, crediting Tanner with a “good-faith effort” in seeking input from educators, saying it is “refreshing” to see such bipartisan collaboration in a polarized political climate.

Though sanctions in HB 338 are about as severe as those that caused many to oppose the Opportunity School District, they would only be imposed if school leaders refuse to implement improvement plans that they help write.

Non-improving schools with recalcitrant leaders could be handed to other school districts or to nonprofit managers, or they could be converted to charter schools. School districts could also be forced to bus students to better-performing schools, and the turnaround chief could replace all the staff.

In districts where a majority of the schools are considered low-performing for more than half a decade, the governor could also remove school board members. (No district currently would qualify.)

Most of these interventions are already allowed under current law, though there are questions about the constitutionality of some of the existing provisions. HB 338 sidesteps that problem by getting school districts to agree to let the state intervene.

The bill threatens to put them on a short leash if they don’t go along. All but two school districts have money-saving “flexibility” contracts that waive state rules for things like the minimum required number of school days or the maximum student-teacher ratios. Districts that refuse to accommodate HB 338 would lose their waivers.

Dewey McClain, D-Lawrenceville, voted against the bill, saying voters in nearly every county rejected the constitutional amendment in November, and that he considered HB 338 to be the same thing “with a dress, with lipstick and high heels.”

About 30 Democrats (and a half dozen Republicans) voted against it. Several "no" votes were from DeKalb County, a district that may have shaped Deal's thinking about schools.

In 2013, he replaced two-thirds of the county school board after it nearly lost accreditation. Two years later, he pushed legislation through the General Assembly creating the Opportunity School District referendum. DeKalb had more schools subject to take over than any other district.

Superintendent Stephen Green managed to move more schools off the list than any other in metro Atlanta last year (seven schools, but he also added five, for a net decrease of two), a performance that caught the attention of lawmakers.

They invited Green, appointed two years ago, to the Gold Dome to watch the vote and had him stand to applause. It was a marked reversal of the school district's troubled reputation. Tanner has said Green's targeting of low-performing schools, and the way he has dealt with the poverty in them, inspired portions of his bill.