Georgia’s failing schools need fixing, but they’re not the only ones

The fight to fix Georgia’s worst schools didn’t end with the Nov. 8 defeat of the Opportunity School District by Georgia voters. It just shifted tactics.

That’s the clear message from Gov. Nathan Deal as the General Assembly opens its 2017 session Monday. Armed with fresh data showing the number of Georgia schools that have received grades of “F” for at least three straight years rose last year by 20 percent — and the number of students in such schools by 30 percent — Deal is pressing lawmakers to take another shot at the problem.

“My priority is the same this year as it was last year, and that is to deal with the worst situation we have in k-12 education, and that is chronically failing schools,” Deal said in an interview Friday with the AJC. “The trajectory is a downward spiral. The number of chronically failing schools has increased. The number of failing schools on a one-year basis has also increased. That is not the direction that we need in the state of Georgia.”

It sure isn’t. But it is a sign local school systems don’t know how to fix the problem. Here’s another: Out of some 2,200 schools statewide, 882 (about 40 percent) received a grade of either “D” or “F” last year. They serve some 576,000 students, about a third of all Georgia students.

Those broader figures show just how deep-seated the problem is. And that focusing only on chronically failing schools isn’t nearly enough.

When one-third of Georgia’s students are attending schools that rate so poorly, our state’s future success is tenuous at best. That’s particularly true when, as Deal noted about the chronically failing schools, so many are elementary schools. Those students will lack the literacy and numeracy skills to continue learning, earn diplomas and move on to postsecondary schools — a track that increasingly is the only path to a solid career.

Deal has said often in recent years that one component of addressing the bigger problem is updating the state’s school-funding formula so that it is focused on students. He was right then. It would be wrong now to wait another year before acting on this relic from the era of jelly shoes, parachute pants and Commodore 64s. Why wait for the other 729 “D” and “F” schools to become chronic failures?

Consider a football analogy. Having failed to move the ball last time (with the OSD amendment), some coaches might elect to punt the ball, play defense and try to improve their field position.

But this game (Deal’s tenure as governor) is officially in the fourth quarter. He isn’t just playing against his opponents; he’s playing against the clock. And, as in a real fourth quarter, it just might be that Deal’s team never gets the ball back.

Unlike a game clock, political capital doesn’t run out in a linear fashion. Its depletion accelerates as the end of a term nears. There are already whispers in the Capitol that Deal has lost more political capital than he acknowledges. By next year, those observations will be spoken a lot more loudly.

But let’s not put this all on Deal. How many Republican legislators have talked about the need for school reform? How many of them remember that 75 percent of GOP primary voters last year said “yes” to a ballot question about empowering parents through school choice measures? They can take that ball and run with it just as well as Deal can.

This is not the time to abandon the children in those chronically failing schools. But the clock is also ticking for the half a million children whose education is scarcely any better.