Smart work needed for ‘Opportunity’ schools to succeed

Gov. Deal’s call for a statewide “Opportunity School District” is a welcome sign that creative solutions are under consideration by Georgia’s leadership. While the governor’s call has promise for helping students languishing in unsuccessful schools, there are many moving parts. It would be very easy to conceive of and implement an OSD badly and both do harm to local governance and fail to improve student achievement.

A few themes that would help Georgia’s OSD:

A clear purpose beyond test scores. Simply looking at something like CCRPI or Milestones scores would be an extremely ham-fisted way of determining which schools will be taken out of the control of their locally elected boards. This shift of power is an important and delicate decision. In determining how a school could be put into the OSD, the reasons should go well beyond tests (perhaps to include graduation rates, college enrollments, parent input, etc). Creating choices for families, rebooting school cultures, and eventually relinquishing state control to successful new local leaders – these are moves that stand a chance of succeeding in the long run. If Georgia can implement these, better test scores will follow, as has happened elsewhere. If the OSD simply focuses on test scores for their own sake, successful new school cultures won't be built. We'll get neither better schools nor better scores.

Humility on the part of the state. Under No Child Left Behind, the state had a mechanism for intervening in consistently low-performing schools with prescriptive rules. The OSD's purpose should be to focus on quality, however that might creatively be achieved, rather than to dictate new rules for these rebooted schools to follow. Neerav Kingsland, former CEO of New School for New Orleans, wrote that "The RSD leader must humbly acknowledge that a marketplace of school operators will, over the long run, outperform even the best direct-run system." And again, as new operators are recruited to restart schools, local desires for what schools should look like should be given significant weight – parents care about more than test scores. Local leadership may be lacking in some places, but local input – however messy and uncomfortable – still has value.

Accept and expect only the best for Georgia. Entities similar to the OSD in New Orleans, in Tennessee, and elsewhere, have recruited organizations such as charter management organizations to restart schools. Georgia's OSD could do this as well, and would do well to note from the beginning that while some CMOs are successful, others are not. The standard for giving someone control of a school must be extremely high. One component of an OSD that might be especially valuable is a Georgia-based charter school incubator, whose purpose is to recruit talent and to produce leadership for schools in the OSD. An entity that is specifically set up to train charter school leaders from within Georgia could help attract potential school founders from the areas of the state housing our lowest-performing schools, and could also attract talent to those areas from around the country (talent that is currently heading to cities like New Orleans, Memphis, and Nashville).

Every student deserves the best schools we can give them. As Gov. Deal argued in his State of the State speech, liberals cannot defend trapping children in failing schools, and conservatives cannot argue that every child currently has the chance to compete on his or her own merits. Implemented properly, an Opportunity School District could both improve the school market and protect many of our most vulnerable students.