Improving schools that fail needy students

Nathan Deal is governor of Georgia.

In the past four years, the General Assembly and I have worked together to devote the largest percentage of the state budget to K-12 education in the last 50 years. Yet despite this investment – we spend more than $8,400 per student – there are many schools in Georgia where, year in and year out, we see no positive returns.

Failing schools are one of the spokes in the wheel that keeps the cycle of poverty spinning round and round, generation after generation. They produce elementary school students who can’t read at grade level, middle schoolers too far behind to catch up and high schoolers who drop out. The vast majority of the 19,000 who dropped out last year lack any job skills and are destined for a life of poverty and, all too often, crime.

Roughly 23 percent of Georgia schools have received either a D or an F for three consecutive years. That translates into thousands of young lives forever stunted by a lack of basic education.

We can look the other way or perhaps even dismiss these students as hopeless. But we know that’s not right. While I do not believe the government can or should give us equality of outcomes, I do believe in equality of opportunity.

That’s why I proposed a constitutional amendment to establish an Opportunity School District. It would authorize the state to step in to help rejuvenate failing public schools and rescue children languishing in them. This model has already been used successfully in other states, particularly in Louisiana where such a program has raised New Orleans’ scores from an F to a C.

I’m not naïve. I know there are no easy fixes. It will require all parties work together — educators, administrators, parents, students and legislators — in order to make this initiative a success. This will not be a “one-size-fits-all,” approach, nor will we seek an overly ambitious plan that overwhelms the Opportunity School District from the start. In other words, the state will not take over scores of schools. To work, it must be highly targeted to the areas of greatest need.

If we want to break the cycle of poverty, let’s educate those children so that they have the skills to escape poverty; if we want to interrupt the cycle of dysfunctional families, let’s educate the children in those homes so that their families of the future will experience normalcy; if we want our young people to have hope, let’s give them the greatest beacon of hope we can confer on them: a high-quality education that leads to a good job, a stable family and a path to a future with more opportunities.

Above all, students and parents will relinquish the burden of having nowhere to go to get a proper education, something no family should have to experience. We have a moral duty to help these children who can’t help themselves. Our places of learning should be where a child learns triumph, not defeat.