Gov. Nathan Deal shakes hands with Georgia School Superintendent Richard Woods before a recent speech to school leaders last year. Woods wants his department to be in charge of school turnaround efforts, but a bill the governor supports gives that responsibility to an officer who would report to the state school board, which the governor appoints. AJC File photo

Senators consider, amend Georgia House’s school turnaround plan

The legislative proposal to improve Georgia’s lowest-performing schools got another hearing and some amendments Wednesday, but did not advance through the Senate.

House Bill 338 picks up pieces from Gov. Nathan Deal’s failed Opportunity School District initiative, and builds a new mechanism for state intervention in schools. Last year, voters rejected Deal’s referendum to create a statewide district to take control of “chronically failing” schools. Unlike that measure, the new proposal, which passed with bipartisan support in the House of Representatives, relies on the cooperation of local school districts.

They could suffer financial consequences if they don’t cooperate, but they get more support in, and control over, the turnaround effort if their schools are targeted.

The Senate amended the bill, reducing the qualifications for the new position of “Chief Turnaround Officer” — advanced degrees and 10 years in K-12 education are no longer required — and extending by another year the amount of time that targeted schools would have to show signs of improvement.

One big requested amendment was not in there: Georgia Superintendent Richard Woods, elected by voters statewide, had asked to be in charge of the turnaround program. He’s argued that he and his Department of Education have improved some of the state’s lowest-performing schools during his two years in office, but in this latest version of the bill the turnaround chief still would report to the state Board of Education, which is appointed by the governor.

Deal, apparently irritated by pressure from Woods on that issue, sent the superintendent a testy letter in February that said the number of “chronically failing” schools increased since Woods took office in 2015. Deal asked him what he’s done “to reverse this downward spiral of failure?”

Woods responded that the failing schools Deal identified are not all considered low-performing under federal guidelines, which are what his agency uses. Only about half of the 153 schools on the governor’s list are also on the education department’s list of low performers, and Woods said he’s made progress with many of the schools on his agency’s list. In essence, the education department and the governor’s office use different yardsticks to measure schools.

The superintendent’s method is getting the nod from the Senate: instead of directing the turnaround chief to target schools that are on the governor’s list, the new version of HB 338 refers to the education department’s yardstick.

Among the most significant changes in the bill is the addition of time for schools to improve. Under the House version, districts had two years to show gains or face loss of control of their schools, which could be turned over to private, nonprofit operators or converted to charter schools. The Senate amended that to three years.

Rep. Kevin Tanner, R-Dawsonville, the bill’s author, said he consented to the changes though some lawmakers think even two years is too many. “There’s a lot of different opinions on that,” he said at a hearing Wednesday of the Senate Education and Youth Committee. “I think we’ve struck a balance.”

The bill still calls for a diagnosis of external factors that affect school performance, such as poverty, but legislation that would fund that effort remains stuck in a different Senate committee. Tanner’s bill remained in committee, too. Sen. Lindsey Tippins, R-Marietta, the education committee chairman, said to expect more amendments before the bill returns for another hearing Monday.

The committee also heard comments — mostly from charter school supporters — on House Bill 430, which implements some recommendations of Deal’s 2015 Education Reform Commission. The bill, by Rep. Buzz Brockway, R-Lawrenceville, makes it easier for charter schools to obtain unused public school buildings, among other things. It too was held back for more amendments and for another hearing Monday.

One House bill that did pass out of the Senate’s education committee will be a boon for dual-enrolled students if it becomes law. House Bill 114 prohibits the exclusion of these students from valedictorian or salutatorian determinations even if they’ve never set foot on the high school campus, as long as they’ve been in the school district since their sophomore year. The bill, by Rep. Robert Dickey, R-Musella, still must get through the whole Senate.

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