Suddenly motivated schools

Perhaps you’ve heard about the professor who was sitting in his office during finals week when a female student walked in.

“Sir, I really need to pass this class,” she began, “and I wanted to let you know I’d do … anything it takes.”

The professor, taken aback, sat up in his chair. “Anything?”

Any-thing,” she purred back.

“Well,” he said, returning her gaze, “would … you … study?”

For some reason, that joke came back to me as I read news story after news story recently about public schools working to stave off a takeover by Georgia’s proposed Opportunity School District.

Atlanta Public Schools, which leads the state with 27 schools eligible for OSD intervention, has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars to buy the advice of consultants. DeKalb County plans “intense support and training” at its 26 OSD-eligible schools. In Savannah, five schools on the OSD list trained teachers and tutored students this summer.

For years we’ve heard that these perennially failing schools had already pulled out all the stops, and yet it seems there are more stops to pull. Why?

Why did it take the threat of a state intervention in these schools — including, potentially, closing them and opening charter schools in their place — to get these school leaders’ attention?

To avoid placement on the OSD list, a school only needs one state ratings above 60 (out of 100) every three years: Two F’s and a D-minus are enough to pass this test. And yet, about 1 in 16 public schools in Georgia can’t make the grade. Why wasn’t that enough to spur people to action?

The fact that it wasn’t is why voters in 2016 need to pass the constitutional amendment authorizing the OSD. Many of these schools have been failing for many years. Now that the districts’ power and money are on the line, they’re making extra effort (to what effect, we’ll see).

Clearly, this accountability measure has gotten school leaders’ attention. Even if they succeed, and the OSD never takes in a single school — it could comprise up to 100 schools, or as few as zero — students and parents can’t count on this new motivation remaining without that new stick.

That said, while the OSD is necessary, it’s far from sufficient. That 100-school cap for the OSD represents less than 5 percent of Georgia’s public schools. Anyone familiar with the state of our schools knows our problems exceed the OSD’s grasp. Many more families need options.

So besides following the lead of Louisiana and Tennessee in creating the OSD, Georgia also needs to adopt a measure recently passed in Nevada: a statewide, universal Education Savings Account.

I wrote about ESAs earlier this year, when a bill to create them was introduced. An ESA would allow parents to spend the tax money the state would have devoted to their child’s public education, between $3,500 and $5,000 per year, for such approved uses as private school tuition and home-schooling materials.

Legislators wound up waiting to see what comes from Gov. Nathan Deal’s education reform commission, which has a subcommittee on school options. The ESA needs to be in the thick of that debate next year.

A common criticism of ESAs is that even $5,000 isn’t enough to pay for a quality non-public education. Over the next month or two, I’ll highlight some metro Atlanta-area schools that prove that isn’t the case.

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