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.”
As opponents and supporters line up their endorsements and attacks, school district leaders are racing to get schools off the target list. And teachers and students at the more than 100 schools potentially subject to takeover are facing yet another set of turnaround programs.
“We want to be able to send a clear message to the community and the state that we are serious about change … and therefore it is not necessary for the Opportunity School District to take any of Atlanta’s schools,” Atlanta Public Schools Deputy Superintendent David Jernigan said.
In November 2016, Georgians will vote on authorizing the takeover district. The constitutional amendment would shift control of low-performing schools to an appointed superintendent, so decisions about how students are taught and how local tax dollars are spent would no longer be solely up to locally elected officials.
The proposed change to the constitution would allow the state to take over “failing” schools and shut them down, run them or convert them to independent charter schools. The schools would become part of a new statewide district for up to a decade. This new superintendent, selected by the governor and confirmed by the state senate, would have authority to take local property tax revenue to fund both the schools and the opportunity district administration.
Atlanta and DeKalb County currently 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.
At an Atlanta school board meeting this month, members of the political organization Rise Up Georgia, which describes itself as “progressive,” pressed the board to take a stand against the measure.
“I need to have a voice to say whether I agree or disagree with what (Deal) wants to do rather than give my voice up,” Atlanta parent Kimberly Brooks said.
Opponents of state takeover 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, which is hosting a public meeting on the matter at Berean Community Center this morning. Rice said plenty of parents are frustrated with the way DeKalb has administered its schools but many also oppose the takeover district. It relates to control over hiring, accountability and money, she said. “Most of our taxes go to the school system.”
National superintendent of the year Philip Lanoue, who leads Clarke County, where one school is on the takeover list, said instead of threatening local districts the state should help counter the problems of poverty that confound schools.
To see state control as the answer “is pretty narrow thinking,” he said.
Supporters of the opportunity district 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 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.
The Georgia Democratic Party opposes the opportunity district. “You can’t trust this administration to take over the schools and do anything better,” party chairman DuBose Porter said of Deal.
Atlanta’s school system has hired national management consulting company Boston Consulting Group to make a plan to get schools off the target list. The $500,000 to pay them comes from private donors, but officials say they’ll ensure the plan reflects the views of parents, teachers and students.
Atlanta also hired Deal policy advisor Erin Hames, the architect of the opportunity district plan, to advise it on avoiding state takeover of schools. Hames will leave the governor’s office at the end of the month but continue to consult with Deal’s office and other groups on education issues.
Many of the Atlanta schools deemed eligible for takeover were previously considered low-performing by the state and federal governments. In many cases, that meant they got help and funding. But the possibility of state takeover means schools must try harder and faster to improve.
“Our runway has been shortened,” Atlanta Deputy Superintendent David Jernigan said.
Several south Fulton schools on the list are part of the county’s new “Achievement Zone.” The designation comes with a host of new district initiatives, including extra training and signing bonuses to recruit top teachers and school-based mental health personnel.
Other Fulton schools on the list will see similar changes, such as new principals and “literacy specialists” who will work with students, teachers and staff.
DeKalb’s new superintendent, Steve Green, said his district’s targeted schools were academically adrift after years of “distractions” as prior school boards and superintendents focused on governance and legal issues. He plans a return to basics: He said he will review the curriculum to ensure it is aligned with the standards assessed by the new Georgia Milestones tests, and make sure teachers are trained accordingly.
Green welcomed the focus on low-performing schools, but took issue with a constitutional amendment that would transfer authority over education to a distant state bureaucracy. “I think that’s a slippery slope,” he said. “I would be very skeptical of trying to infringe on local control.”
But advocates of the takeover plan say Georgia has long given too much deference to local control. Michael O’Sullivan, the state director for the national education-reform group StudentsFirst, said the mere threat of a takeover has inspired a sense of urgency. “This has caused a new focus and a new desire among school districts to really do everything they possibly can to improve,” he said.
Deal spokesman Brian Robinson said, “the governor prefers local control, but he is not going to put the interests of adults over the interests of children.”