Big test ahead for struggling Ga. schools

Nov. 8’s vote on whether to grant the state authority to take over failing schools is an issue worthy of voters’ study of both sides, such as the views presented here today.

At least both sides agree on a big thing in the at times-shrill debate over whether to create a mechanism for state takeover of struggling schools.

Proponents and opponents of the Opportunity School District idea concur that Georgia’s failing schools need help – now.

Georgia voters should not forget that when considering the politics-versus-policy arguments over whether to change how troubled schools are governed.

Improving the quality of education provided to roughly 9 of 10 children in Georgia is a necessity. That’s especially true for kids whose neighborhood schools rank at the bottom for student achievement.

The question worth answering is how best to begin making things better. A couple of main themes quickly become apparent.

One concerns resource allocation. Both sides seem to broadly agree that things such as demographics and family economics often impact how well students learn. The poorest schoolchildren in Georgia often start out with far more economic and societal demerits than kids reared in more-affluent, more-stable homes. Repairing those deficits usually takes extra effort. And that can be expensive.

Children who are homeless, or live in cramped, substandard quarters are less prepared for academic achievement than those who don’t have to worry about such things. Children who are chronically under-nourished, or lack consistent medical care that could supply such things as eyeglasses to help them see school blackboards, are often at a disadvantage.

These points, often raised by current school officials, should not be overlooked, even if the OSD passes into law. The necessity of enhancing learning for poor children isn’t going away soon, no matter how schools are governed.

OSD supporters contend that the best way forward toward improvement is to grant the state power to take control of failing schools. The legislation would enable a state superintendent, appointed by the governor, to either run troubled schools (with or without local school board involvement), convert them to charter schools under independent management, or close them altogether.

Not surprisingly, several local school boards have taken umbrage with the OSD concept, asserting that it would result in a loss of local control and accountability. Some critics, perhaps surprisingly, are in conservative areas, or in districts that have no schools on the struggling list.

And some school superintendents have ignored Gov. Nathan Deal’s warning to, essentially, keep to themselves any criticisms they might have about the Opportunity district.

The ongoing debate over the merit – or demerits – of the OSD proposal is providing a lesson in civics and economics for Georgia voters. We’d be surprised if classroom teachers aren’t using it for learning moments, as well.

In all of the back-and-forth noise, it is important that the central point not be shouted down. Educating struggling kids will take a different allocation of resources than is presently the case. There’s no responsible way around that reality.

OSD opponents say the state needs to address how schools overall are funded. Part of that, they say, concerns getting troubled schools extra needed help. Applying more resources against the largest needs can be seen as similar to Gov. Deal’s criminal justice reforms, which aim to apply different levers, such as mental health and drug-abuse treatment, to keep the legal system from being a costly revolving door for troubled souls who are not dangers to society.

Supporters of the OSD say the time has come to try bold new approaches, such as increased use of charter schools, which they argue have more flexibility and motivation to more effectively apply innovative approaches to educating students.

If the OSD is enacted, we suspect that the enormity of the problems posed by poor children will convince the usually cautious Gov. Deal to tread lightly in exercising his office’s new powers. We certainly hope so. Politics aside, OSD opponents did raise serious issues that will take hard, smart, lengthy work to begin correcting — school organizational structure notwithstanding.

For their part, voters considering the OSD would do well to recall lessons learned in school. Comprehensive study and research are vital to success. So is viewing competing arguments with a critical, pragmatic eye. Making the right choices on Election Day will test all our knowledge. Luckily, there’s still time to prepare by boning up on both sides of the issue.