Fixing our worst schools

Gov. Deal’s call for a state-run recovery school district is well-intentioned, but doesn’t adequately assess cost or make note of education practices, changes here in metro Atlanta.

Maureen Downey, for the Editorial Board.

In urging Georgia voters to empower the state to seize control of low-performing schools, Gov. Nathan Deal bemoaned children “trapped in a failing school that sentences them to a life in poverty.”

He said the problem is not money, contending, “…many of our failing schools already spend far more money per child than the state average.”

No one doubts Deal’s sincerity in seeking to bolster Georgia’s lowest performing schools by transferring them into a state-controlled Opportunity School District. However, his proposal to adopt the recovery school district model pioneered in New Orleans misses the mark.

Through Louisiana’s Recovery School District, a ravaged New Orleans adopted a radical new model; it gutted school attendance zones, transformed most of its schools into independent charters and tossed out the rules on teacher hiring and seniority.

Despite Deal’s contention money doesn’t matter, it certainly did in New Orleans. Galvanized by the devastation left by Hurricane Katrina, donations and teachers rushed to the schools that emerged from the rubble. Nearly a third of the public school teachers are now Teach for America, the ambitious alternative teacher program that recruits bright college grads to two-year classroom stints.

That outpouring of support enabled New Orleans to invest $15,500 per pupil, 56 percent more than the average per-pupil expenditure in Louisiana. While average funding in New Orleans schools has now dropped to just under $13,000, it surpasses the Georgia average of $8,400 per pupil.

Even with increased investment, idealistic educators and progressive charter schools, the performance of NOLA students, while improving at a higher rate, still lags the rest of the state. On state exams last year, 57 percent of kids in New Orleans passed, compared to 69 percent statewide.

While New Orleans presented a compelling and single reform target, failing schools in Georgia are scattered. They are not conveniently clustered for easy coordination. And the lowest performers are alternative high schools.

It’s not likely Deal envisions filling his Opportunity District with high schools of last resort. Georgia is more apt to follow Tennessee’s recovery district model in which that state’s Achievement School District picks and chooses the struggling schools based on academic need, opportunity for impact, feeder pattern trends and stakeholder input.

Of the 23 schools under Tennessee state control, 22 are in Memphis and serve poor African-American students. In three years, ASD — which both runs schools and authorizes charter companies to operate others — has moved math scores, but not reading/language arts.

Louisiana and Tennessee have targeted urban rather than rural schools for takeover. While the city of Atlanta has a few schools in the bottom 5 percent, it’s already done what Deal proposes to do — hire a reform superintendent with an ambitious agenda and intense focus on achievement. It wouldn’t make sense for the state to intervene in Atlanta Schools while Superintendent Meria Carstarphen is only beginning her overhaul of the district.

The main question we ought to ask is why Deal is looking to New Orleans or Memphis for a blueprint for success when he can just drive 20 minutes to Gwinnett County?

A new Wallace Foundation report released a week ago celebrated Gwinnett as a national model in training effective school leaders. A two-time winner of the prestigious Broad Prize for high-achieving urban districts, Gwinnett has a greater percentage of low-income students reaching advanced academic levels than most other districts.

Gwinnett boasts a better track record with struggling students than the recovery districts Deal is holding out as exemplars. And the county has done so without creating a new state bureaucracy or handing its schools over to private operators.