School takeover plan foes see threat to local control of education

The vote is more than a year away, but debate over Gov. Nathan Deal’s proposed takeover of failing schools has moved from the Capitol into community centers and schools themselves.

It pits Georgia’s cherished ideal of local control of schools and tax dollars against the urgency to improve education via an “Opportunity School District.”

Next year, voters will consider a constitutional amendment that shifts control of low-performing schools to a superintendent selected by the governor and confirmed by the state senate. Decisions about how students are taught and how local tax dollars are spent would no longer be solely up to locally elected officials.

Atlanta and DeKalb County have the most schools subject to takeover, about two dozen apiece. More than 20 Augusta schools could be at risk too, and about half a dozen in Fulton County and several in Clayton County.

Opponents say it would give control of schools to an aloof entity that is not accountable to voters or parents. They say it’s unclear what the state would do to improve schools that local districts aren’t already doing. And the real issue for many schools, they say, is poverty.

“It adds another layer between the parent and the administration of the school,” said Kathryn Rice, a founding member of the South DeKalb Improvement Association.

Supporters say Georgia has let low-performing schools languish for too long.

“What I can tell you is that parents generally are frustrated. They want options, and they want schools that work,” said Alisha Thomas Morgan, a former Democratic state lawmaker and charter school advocate who has bucked her party on the issue and now runs a group of charter schools — the Gwinnett-based Ivy Preparatory Academy. One of the organization’s three campuses, a school for boys in DeKalb, is on the state’s takeover list.

Morgan said the opportunity district will be good for Georgia as long as its superintendent considers what each community wants for its schools.