Money won’t give bad schools the change they need

Given all the talk about education funding during this gubernatorial campaign, here are a few facts you may be surprised to learn.

In 2012, amid those “billion-dollar cuts” to education we keep hearing about, Georgia ranked in the middle nationally for k-12 spending per pupil: 35th overall; 29th for spending on actual instruction, and 28th for spending on teacher salaries.

As a percentage of personal income — one proxy for adjusting for cost-of-living differences — Georgia’s spending is more robust. Viewed this way, we were 11th overall; 10th for instruction, and sixth for teacher salaries. (All spending figures come from the Census Bureau and are the latest available.)

So maybe focusing on an input like spending isn’t the most helpful way to think about improving our schools. Maybe we should look at why the inputs aren’t producing comparable outputs in student achievement. Maybe we should look at what’s happening in between.

If we do, it’s clear that, in an election not exactly long on crisp new ideas, the one potentially transformative idea is Gov. Nathan Deal’s proposal to create a “recovery school district” to turn around Georgia’s worst schools.

The premise is simple. Not all traditional public schools are bad; not by a long shot. But an unacceptably large portion of them are persistently bad.

“Education as usual” hasn’t worked in these schools. They are mostly urban and more likely to serve minority students. These schools are a drag on Georgia’s school-achievement rankings — but most important, they are a drag on the future: the students’ as individuals, and ours as a state.

Giving these schools another $1,000 per child each year isn’t going to change that. Changing the way they operate might.

In Louisiana, which pioneered the recovery school district model a decade ago, this approach has produced real, sustained, unprecedented improvements in achievement. The early trend in Tennessee, which followed suit two years ago, is good.

If Georgia adopted this model, it would create a “district” whose superintendent could select low-performing schools from anywhere in the state. This person could take a range of approaches to spark improvement, but other states have found the most effective approach is converting these schools into charter schools.

Ideally, the state would be able to recruit top-notch charter operators, some of which aren’t in Georgia today, to run small clusters of three or four schools. They would have a certain amount of time to run the schools and hit specific performance targets.

Then, the transformed schools would be folded back into their local districts. One hopes these districts would not only keep successful charter operators on board, but apply what they learned to other schools.

This is not a blow against local school districts. No one gets everything right all the time. This model simply allows problematic schools to get the attention they deserve, but which their central offices can’t always give them.

Nor is it a blow against local control. After all, with control comes accountability. The latter element hasn’t been enforced, to the detriment of local students, local parents and local communities.

But it could be a blow for public education in a state that desperately needs one.