Voters say “no” to Opportunity School District

Georgia voters have demanded that schools remain under local control.

Six out of 10 votes cast on Amendment 1 opposed the constitutional amendment to allow a state takeover of the state’s worst performing schools.

The amendment would have established a statewide Opportunity School District to be run by a new state agency with authority to take schools deemed to be “chronically failing” from the control of local school boards.

Polling before the election showed strong opposition by Republicans and Democrats, as likely voters said they didn't want to surrender local control of schools.

Gov. Nathan Deal pushed the referendum through the General Assembly last year, passing it with strong Republican support. He then campaigned for it, saying school districts had trapped mostly poor and minority students in failing schools and in a cycle of poverty spanning generations.

Opponents criticized it as a vague proposal that brought no new resources to struggling schools.

Rosa Bland, 65, voted against Amendment 1 at Toney Elementary School in south DeKalb County, a “chronically failing” school that would have been subject to takeover had the amendment passed. Bland said teachers need raises and the school needs money to hire more of them. “The school is crowded and they don’t have enough teachers to teach the kids,” she said.

Supporters cast the proposed state takeover as a moral imperative that would allow the state to try to improve schools where local leaders had failed to do so.

Jakeida Smith-Dawson, 39, voted for the amendment at a recreation center across the street from the “chronically failing” Thomasville Heights Elementary School. She has more than a dozen nieces and nephews in Atlanta Public Schools and feels the district and some of its teachers need to be pushed to do better. “I don’t feel like APS has a grasp on things,” she said. “Some of these teachers are just there for a paycheck.”

The campaign against Amendment 1 raised more than $5 million for TV ads and other election costs, with the bulk of the money — at least $4.7 million — coming from the National Education Association. Opponents focused their message on keeping control of schools and local tax dollars in the hands of local officials. The Opportunity district was designed to take not only schools but also the federal, state and local tax dollars supporting them. Opponents complained that the proposal was almost exclusively about changing management structures rather than specifics about new teaching methods, better teacher training or more money for tutoring.

Deal had backing from out-of-state charter school advocates. Members of the the Walton family of Wal-Mart fame gave $400,000 to Amendment 1 supporters. The committee working to pass it had raised $2.6 million as of late October, including $1.4 million from Georgia Leads, a fund pushing Deal's agenda that doesn't disclose its donors.

Passage would have empowered Deal to pick a new superintendent with broad authority to select schools for takeover and to decide what to do with them. That leader could have choosen to close schools, run them directly or hand them over to charter school operators. The schools would have been run more autonomously than is typically the case under local control, but the new superintendent would have picked the people running them.

The governor's new superintendent could have handed local operations to for-profit charter school companies. That galvanized opposition. Teacher advocacy groups, whose members might have lost their jobs in schools taken by the state, were a natural opponent. But the quarter million strong Georgia PTA joined the teachers, as did local school boards that had no schools performing poorly enough to be taken over. More than 40 boards passed resolutions opposing Amendment 1, including some in Republican strongholds like Barrow County., where one school board member said at a meeting that Deal could "go to hell" with his proposal.

Late Tuesday, the opponents who assembled an oil and water coalition celebrated.

“We did it,” said Lisa-Marie Haygood, president of the Georgia PTA. She said an “unlikely coalition” of blacks and whites of all income and education levels reached across partisan lines to defeat the measure. “We all wanted to stop a bad law from taking effect.”

As the vote neared, Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed joined in, calling Deal's plan a "diversion of public funds … to private entities." Even the Cherokee County Republican Party bucked the GOP governor, adopting a resolution against the amendment a week ahead of the election.

The campaign took on a racial undertone as the NAACP and the Concerned Black Clergy came out against it, and then black icons such as Andrew Young and Hank Aaron joined them.

Deal tried to bridge the growing divide, speaking at black churches about how he wanted to help kids. He had no plans to run for re-election, he said, so this wasn’t self-serving.

Then, last week, an Atlanta TV station revealed that Deal had used the term "colored people" in an Oct. 3 speech about those whom he wanted his proposal to help. Deal told that station, Fox 5, that he was referring to the NAACP, which to his consternation was opposing the amendment. The full name of the organization is the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

Deal had created an opening for black leaders to question his sentiments about race. Leading black Democratic politicians, such as U.S. Rep. Hank Johnson and state Sen. Vincent Fort, piled on, saying the language was unacceptably racial, a throwback to an era of segregation.

"I don't think it was referring to the NAACP," said the Rev. Timothy McDonald, III, an outspoken black minister who was among plaintiffs in a lawsuit against Deal and other state leaders over what they saw as "misleading" wording on the ballot. "He came up in an era when that term was used and he had a flashback."

You can find information about your school, such as test scores, graduation rates and school climate rating at the Ultimate Atlanta School Guide.