Gov. Nathan Deal, shown here with his wife, Sandra, reading to schoolchildren, is increasing his lobbying for the Opportunity School District. (Governor’s Office Photo)

School takeover plan draws fire Deal didn’t seem to didn’t foresee

Is the governor running scared on his Opportunity School District?

An infusion of outside cash, withering TV ads and a rising revolt among schools boards has given Nathan Deal something he didn’t expect in his campaign to amend the constitution to enable state takeover — a street fight.

With its rosy ballot language — Should the state intervene in chronically failing public schools to improve student performance? — the governor’s legacy legislation seemed a slam dunk. The OSD requires a fundamental change to the Georgia constitution because it transfers control from elected school boards to a governor-appointed superintendent who holds sole authority to run the schools, close them or turn them over to independent management.

Deal’s recent lobbying on behalf of the OSD suggests he may be worried about a survey showing a divided electorate. Along with a new business-oriented video in which he equates the Opportunity district to more job opportunities, a heartfelt Deal also stars in a new TV commercial urging Georgians to vote “yes” for the sake of children in failing schools.

Outside money is underwriting the slick ads on both sides. The pro-OSD campaign is being bankrolled by a group organized by Deal supporters, which has received donations from 50Can, an education advocacy group that merged with Michelle Rhee’s StudentsFirst in March, while the National Education Association is the top funder for opposition efforts.

Deal invited African-American ministers to the Governor’s Mansion to tout the benefits of the OSD to black students. In his account of the meeting, the Rev. Chester Ellis of St. Paul Missionary Baptist Church in Savannah, said, “I thanked the governor for inviting me, but I told him before I left that there are too many uncertainties and too many unanswered questions to go before my congregation and say we should support this. I’m not comfortable with the governor’s answers or his solutions.”

Attacks on the OSD are coming from unexpected places — some Georgia conservatives. Mary Kay Bacallao, a former GOP candidate for state school chief and a former Fayette County school board member, is recommending voters reject the amendment, explaining, “Say goodbye to electing your school officials. The measures are not for absolute student achievement. Bonus points are given to favored races and classes so they will not take the lowest performing schools. It will cause strict adherence to the dumbed-down federal education program. Vote ‘no’ while you have the opportunity.”

A reliable voice for many conservative issues in Georgia, Jane Robbins, senior fellow for the American Principles Project, opposes Deal’s plan. “Conservatives are always skeptical of greater centralization of power. OSD combines centralization with almost total lack of accountability to parents and local communities. Under OSD, the Governor’s Office would be running the show, and the governor has given conservatives no reason to trust him on education or anything else. There is zero evidence that his office can fix problems with local schools if given even more power,” she said.

Another possible sign of Deal’s nervousness: The state Department of Education notified school boards they cannot “expend funds or other resources to advocate or oppose the ratification of a constitutional amendment by the voters.”

If that message was supposed to subtly constrain school boards from speaking out, it missed its mark; 43 boards have adopted resolutions against the OSD.

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