Schools, power and money: Who should be in control?

The campaigns for and against Georgia’s proposed Opportunity School District have been trying to out-local each other.

If voters approve Amendment 1 on the Nov. 8 ballot, supporters say it will allow the state to push control over troubled schools down to the school level, and what could be more local than that? But opponents point out that a political appointee of the governor would have czar-like authority over most consequential decisions, including whether to take over particular schools and who would run them.

Lurking beneath the surface is an issue often present in Georgia politics: race and the state’s painful history with it, especially in the schools. If the initiative passes, other states’ experience with similar efforts suggests it will be controversial, partly due to that racial history.

The constitutional amendment would establish a state agency whose superintendent would answer to the governor instead of local school board members. Czars can get things done but don’t inherently have the credibility of an elected leader, which is among the conundrums of this proposal.

Democracy is messy, as anyone watching the gridlock in Washington knows, and Georgians have seen plenty of messiness closer to home: Political infighting cost Clayton County Public Schools their accreditation in 2008, and DeKalb County was slipping down the same hole until Gov. Nathan Deal replaced most of the school board in 2013.

Simmering frustration with schools boiled over in 2012 when voters changed the constitution to allow the State Charter Schools Commission, which can establish alternatives to the public school down the street. In 2012, black voter support was key.

A recent AJC poll suggests many black voters, and others, are wary of Amendment 1, though. If it passes, it will empower the state to take over "chronically failing" schools and try to improve them.

The measure’s supporters say school boards can be more concerned about employing teachers and administrators than educating students.

Opponents note that the new state district would take not only schools but also the local tax dollars that support them, and say this is all about the money, some of which could flow to for-profit charter school companies.

If the measure passes, Deal and his successors will have to walk a narrow path between getting things done and alienating the neighborhoods where the schools are taken, particularly in black communities sensitive to a history of state-sanctioned slavery and then segregation. The campaign has already galvanized organizations for African-Americans, such as the NAACP and the Concerned Black Clergy, since most schools subject to takeover have a predominantly black enrollment. They claim the real intent is to pick local taxpayers' pockets.

Richard Rose, president of the Atlanta branch of the NAACP, calls it a “setup” of black people by the state’s political leaders. “The governor and top officials all believe in and support the Confederacy, so why do we think they would support the education of black and brown children?”

Deal has said the opposite — that he wants voters to give him the power to intervene in failing schools so the state can improve the lives of children, most of them poor and black, who are stuck in crummy schools.

“The only way the state will profit is to have these children get an education,” he told a largely black crowd at a church south of Atlanta last week, when asked about the money. He said their school boards — mostly urban school districts are affected, Deal noted — have all but ignored the plight of poor kids.

The vote is only Deal’s first challenge. The biggest one will be turning around schools if the measure passes. The lesson from other states is that it will require enthusiasm in those communities where schools are taken.

Louisiana is under public pressure to return local control to schools it took after Hurricane Katrina. Tennessee’s Achievement School District, another model for Georgia’s proposal, has been met with resistance, too. Its leaders say most parents give their school high marks in surveys, and there are supporters such as Marquita Finnie, who says the district overcame her initial suspicions.

“They prepared my kids for college and before then there wasn’t nobody talking about college,” the Memphis mother said.

But others were happy with the schools the way they were. Tiffany Perkins said she attended meetings with the Achievement district before the decision was made to take over her middle school in a predominantly black neighborhood of Memphis. She feels her opinion and those of other parents were ignored. She liked the school principal and said the veteran teachers had developed strong bonds with her two children there and were able to “get through to” the students. The Achievement district replaced the staff, bringing in new teachers, some without credentials.

“It was just a mess and I don’t think it was great for the kids,” she said. She withdrew them and transferred them to another school under the local district’s control, even though it meant a drive across town.

Researcher Joshua Glazer interviewed scores of people in the Achievement district and concluded that community support is essential to school turnaround. Its "DNA" is inherently alienating, especially for residents who view it through the lens of racial history, said Glazer, an associate professor of education policy at George Washington University. And a "highly charged historical dynamic in which race figures very prominently … really shapes … the amount of trust that there is to work with."

Georgia’s proposal, as in Tennessee, allows an appointed superintendent to place a school under the management of a charter organization. Tennessee only allows nonprofits, but Georgia would let for-profit charter companies run schools. That has stoked opponents here and enhanced their story line about the money.

That story resonates with Frances Morgan, a parent at a south DeKalb County school that could be taken over. Cedar Grove Elementary is considered “chronically failing” under state measures, yet Morgan, one of the few involved parents there, says the teachers have developed emotional ties to their students. She uses words like “camaraderie” and “love” to describe the school. “I feel if the state comes in and takes over, I’m going to lose all of that.”

Like those at nearly all the schools eligible for takeover, most students at Cedar Grove qualify for free or reduced-price meals. The principal says perhaps one out of 10 parents attends school meetings. Some have two jobs. Others don’t have anyone to watch the kids while they’re away for a school meeting. Others don’t have a car to get to the school. The principal, Bernetta Jones, said she sends a janitor around in his car to get some of them.

Opportunity School District supporters say poverty shouldn’t be an excuse for low achievement, but their proposal doesn’t seem to acknowledge it’s an obstacle, either. There are no additional resources for counseling or tutoring, let alone for extra food or transportation. Those things cost money, and the state’s education budget is tight.

There also are no specifics about new curriculum, teaching methods or teacher training. Instead, the focus is on new management structures to allow “flexibility” for local solutions.

Those structures may or may not include current teachers and principals, who could be removed. That helps explain why the core opposition is coming from teacher advocacy groups, which are pouring money into the campaign against the ballot measure. But the quarter-million strong Georgia PTA has sided against it, too, saying it would take a leap of faith to give the governor such authority.

If he gets it, he’ll likely encounter mistrust rooted in Georgia’s racial history. Schools here weren’t desegregated until 1970, nearly two decades after a Supreme Court order to do so.

“A great majority of African American kids remained in segregated schools, including myself,” said Michael Thurmond, the former DeKalb County superintendent who is running for county CEO. The former state labor commissioner and lawmaker wrote a book, called “Freedom,” about Georgia’s legacy of slavery. Education for blacks was forbidden until after the Civil War, and it was unequal until desegregation. “How much of that can be undone in 46 years,” he said. It’s a social problem that schools can’t fix quickly, or without outside help, he said.

Deal says local school boards have had enough time and have trapped kids, mostly poor and black, in a cycle of poverty.

Opponents, including Andrew Young, the former congressman, UN ambassador and Atlanta mayor, calls that blaming the victim. Asked about Deal's generational failure argument, Young said: "I'd say that they took the money from us a generation ago."

Young called the emphasis on testing in schools starting in the early 2000s an “economic ripoff” because of the role of “Wall Street testing corporations.” Money shifted from the classroom to them, he said. “And then they want to blame us and say we failed?”

Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, a Democrat who has been friendly with the GOP governor, joined in the money narrative, announcing Wednesday he opposes the Opportunity School District because "it will inevitably result in the diversion of public funds for public schools to private entities, with inadequate oversight, and without accountability to parents."

Tennessee law gives the state sole authority in picking which schools are taken over. Achievement district leaders, recognizing the need for public support, empanelled committees to give input, but they were merely advisory and people knew it. “One of our takeaways here is that there’s a big difference between engagement and empowerment,” said Glazer, the researcher. The state district also failed to produce quick results, “and that then just sort of further feeds into the narrative of why are you coming to take over our schools if you can’t even do any better?”

Georgia’s legislation requires public input but, as in Tennessee, the ultimate decision about which schools to take over and what to do with them is not made by a locally elected body. Instead, it rests with the governor’s handpicked superintendent. That appointee will pick the principals in schools run directly by the Opportunity district and the governing boards that will run the schools converted to charter status. Parents could be put on those boards but the only requirement — beyond U.S. citizenship and Georgia residency — is that members come “from the community.”

While Georgia doesn’t appear to have strayed much from the trail marked by Tennessee, Deal has learned one important lesson. He is downplaying expectations, saying the Opportunity School District is no silver bullet.

Will he and his superintendent truly engage the communities and heed their desires? What about the governors and superintendents who succeed him? Voters cannot know that, so their decision will ultimately be about trust. How much do they trust their state government to get it right?

»» Seven things to know about the Opportunity School District proposal

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