Opportunity School District amendment: In all those ads, what’s true?

When Georgians cast their ballot on Amendment 1 they’ll either vote for an educational overhaul that “ends poverty” or they’ll decide against it because they don’t want to hand control of their schools to “out-of-state, for-profit corporations.”

Those are among the arguments the dueling sides are tossing at the public in TV and internet ads weeks before the Nov. 8 election, when voters will decide whether to create a state-run agency with authority to take over poorly performing schools and the local tax dollars that support them.

Gov. Nathan Deal asserts that passage will empower parents and teachers to “fix” bad schools and end an “inexcusable crisis” that has trapped more than 67,000 kids in a cycle of poverty and crime. That is how many students attend the nearly 130 schools with a “failing” grade three years running on the state’s scoring system — schools that could be taken over if the measure passes.

“It can end poverty, create opportunity for generations to come. Even turn around our communities,” says a video on the website of Georgia Leads on Education, a group led by a former Deal staffer who is in charge of the pro-amendment campaign. The group doesn’t say how, exactly, a school takeover would accomplish this.

Teachers groups, the PTA and other opponents contend Deal is simply making a “power grab” for those schools and the dollars that go with them. One TV ad produced by the coalition, Keep Georgia Schools Local says the constitutional amendment “silences” parents and teachers and “hands control of our schools to a statewide unaccountable political appointee and out-of-state, for-profit corporations.”

So who’s telling the truth here?

Would the new district and its superintendent be able to improve schools? If so, then maybe the state really could produce economic opportunity and take a bite out of poverty.

Will that superintendent, who, it is true, would answer only to the governor, truly empower parents and teachers to make decisions? Nothing in the legislation says he or she has to. The 13-page law that would take effect if voters change the constitution does say the new superintendent shall seek “input” and “feedback” from the community, but it also says the big decisions are wholly his or hers to make.

The superintendent could close a school, run it with or without involvement of the local school district, or convert it to a charter school, choosing the school’s governing board and its management.

Will that management be for-profit?

There is a precedent for for-profit school managers in Georgia. The state’s largest school is an online charter school managed by K12, a publicly-traded corporation based in Virginia. But many charter schools are also run by nonprofit organizations or by in-house administrators, and the legislation doesn’t state a preference.

What about the other claims in those ads?

Proponents say the new district “preserves” quality in “good” schools. The legislation doesn’t say anything about how, and the pro-amendment campaign would not elaborate.

Presumably, the ad means that non-failing schools will be left alone, but opponents of the constitutional amendment complain that the line between good and bad is in flux.

Currently, the Georgia Department of Education judges schools based on its College and Career-Ready Performance Index, which is powered by a formula that has been evolving from year to year, contributing to changes in school scores. The index relies in large part on results from standardized tests, which also have been evolving and have been plagued by technical glitches.

Sen. Butch Miller, R-Gainesville, a floor leader for Deal and the lead co-sponsor of the legislation, understands the concerns about the scoring system. But he said any governor who thinks the system isn’t working could pull the plug on the Opportunity School District. “If it’s not funded in a future governor’s program, basically, it goes away.”

Perhaps the most important assertion by proponents is that the Opportunity School District is a “proven” solution. No one has researched Georgia’s proposed solution because it has not been implemented, and it is not an exact copy of any program with a track record. Proponents draw comparisons to New Orleans, where student test scores and high school graduation and college-entry rates rose considerably under Louisiana’s Recovery School District. Yet Georgia’s Opportunity district differs significantly from Louisiana’s in at least one key way: Georgia’s does not offer school choice. In New Orleans, parents were able to choose a school for their child. In the Georgia proposal, students get no new choice besides their neighborhood school after it is taken over.

Georgia’s design may be most similar to an experiment in Tennessee called the Achievement School District, where Vanderbilt professor Gary Henry has seen little data to indicate a great effect beyond scaring local districts into doing better to keep control of their schools. Henry notes that the Tennessee experiment may be too new to have taken full effect.

The opponents have their own bold claims, saying the amendment “robs” struggling schools and “takes away” $13 million from education statewide. The calculation is based on state-reported average spending per student and enrollment averages for the targeted schools. It refers to the part of the proposal that lets the Opportunity School District withhold up to 3 percent of each absorbed school’s revenue for state administrative oversight.

Their ad also says the district will take $135,000 per school, a figure that likewise was calculated using average spending and enrollment. The opponents fail to note that the money would support the operations of the absorbed schools.

Rep. Brooks Coleman, R-Duluth, helped assure passage of the proposal during the 2015 legislative session, and recently wrote that the 3 percent withholding amount behind that $13 million calculation is actually two percentage points lower than the statewide average now consumed by local district central offices.

Also, the figure is based on an Opportunity School District operating full tilt with a maximum of 100 schools, but under the legislation it can only grow by 20 schools a year, so it would be at least half a decade before the state is taking that much money, if it ever does.

Alyssa Botts, a spokeswoman for Opportunity for All Georgia Students, the pro-amendment campaign committee affiliated with Georgia Leads, said the other side’s financial figures are based on “gross” and unrealistic assumptions about how the proposed state district will be implemented.

“The figures from their ads are bogus,” she said.

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