Charter school idea would face fierce opposition in Georgia

Don’t go there. That was the reaction among education groups in Georgia to Gov. Nathan Deal’s interest in a plan — implemented in Louisiana and Tennessee — that converts low-performing traditional public schools into charter schools and moves them from their local districts into a state ‘recovery district.’

Last week, Deal expressed excited support for implementing such a plan here after meeting with Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, who oversaw the creation of a recovery district in his state. Deal later scaled back his commitment to the idea, saying he wants state legislators to study it.

Even that, however, was enough to elicit a strong response from critics of the idea, many of whom have come to see charter schools as a sort of Trojan horse that will lead to the eventual privatization of public education in Georgia.

“If we truly want to move Georgia forward, blindly adopting an unproven model is not the answer,” said Valarie Wilson, the Democratic candidate for state school superintendent.

Richard L. Woods, the Republican candidate for state superintendent, said he supports the governor’s focus on low-performing schools. But Woods said “time is needed to fully implement and fully assess the policies that we currently have in place.”

Tim Callahan, spokesman for the Professional Association of Georgia Educators, said setting up another system for the creation of charter schools is unnecessary.

“We already have a statewide charter commission, so it would be adding yet another layer of bureaucracy,” Callahan said. “It would also appear to be a large-scale repudiation of public schools as a ‘failed system,’ which educators, parents and anyone connected with our state’s public schools would find repugnant. Perhaps (Deal) got carried away on the stump and that’s not really where his heart is. We certainly hope so.”

Louisiana pioneered the recovery district idea a decade ago, and it’s since been picked up in various forms in Tennessee and other states. Schools that persistently under-perform for several years are moved into a state-run recovery district and converted to charter schools.

Charter schools are public schools, but they are run differently than traditional public schools. Typically, a management board oversees them, and the schools are granted staffing and instructional flexibility in exchange for a promise to deliver specific academic results.

Charter school supporters said they’d back the governor in a push for a recovery school district. The Georgia chapter of StudentsFirst, an education advocacy group, hailed the news that Deal supported Louisiana’s concept.

“We’ve seen the impressive results that Recovery School Districts have made in turning around chronically failing schools in Louisiana and Tennessee and we believe we can have the same positive effect in Georgia,” said Michael O’Sullivan, the group’s outreach director.

Most of the focus in Louisiana has been on troubled schools in New Orleans. The widespread destruction of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 gave state leaders a sort of blank slate, and they transferred low-performing schools in New Orleans into the recovery district.

There has been some academic improvements in New Orleans schools, but it’s not clear that those improvements are directly and only tied to the recovery district.

“The New Orleans miracle is more myth than miracle,” said Verdaillia Turner, president of the Georgia Federation of Teachers.

Turner said schools in Louisiana and Georgia that get proper funding and strong teachers will see improvements.

In New Orleans, the recovery school district remains a source of division and rancor. That rancor was amplified when, in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the Orleans Parish School Board fired more than 7,000 of its educators. Many of the parish’s schools were moved into the recovery district, which brought in its own educators.

The former parish educators sued, and, earlier this year, they won a judgment that could reach $1.5 billion. But bitterness remains.

“The educators who were fired right after Katrina did file a lawsuit and won,” said Debbie Meaux, president of the Louisiana Association of Educators. “None of them will get their jobs back; those jobs don’t exist. Monetarily, there was a large settlement, but there is some question as to whether the Orleans Parish School Board will ever have to pay it. Most believe that the award itself will never be paid out in full.”

Implementing a recovery school district in Georgia would be a sea change that would require new laws. Right now, the state does not have the authority to take over struggling schools.

The state can direct targeted assistance to those schools, but there is no mechanism in place that allows the state to pull a struggling school from its local district and convert it to a charter school.

Deal said he would work with Jindal next year to study Louisiana’s state’s charter school efforts to “rescue children from our lowest-performing schools.”

“Your ZIP code should not determine the quality of your education,” Deal said. “Every child deserves the opportunity to get a great education.”

Deal spokesman Brian Robinson said the state would first need to define a “low-performing” school.

“In Louisiana, the trigger is that the school is deemed ‘academically unacceptable’ by the state board for four consecutive years,” he said. “There are other standards in other states, such as making the bottom 5 percent of schools eligible. Gov. Deal would want Georgia’s standard to also emphasize long-term shortcomings. Schools and school districts won’t have to constantly look over their shoulders in fear of a state takeover. There would be plenty of time for self-correction at the local level.”

Robinson added that what happens to a low-performing school would also have to be determined.

“There are many paths the state could take as to how it would help low-performing schools,” he said. “A school or district could be converted into a charter. There could be a local/state partnership and, perhaps in some cases, a state takeover of a school or a school district.”

Whatever happens, Robinson said, won’t happen overnight.

“This is a big undertaking, not a quick bill that flies through the General Assembly,” he said. “Could very well require a constitutional amendment.”

Tony Roberts, president and chief executive officer of the Georgia Charter Schools Association, said something needs to be done to turn around low-performing schools.

“We’ve already seen that putting them on lists and giving them more money normally doesn’t work,” he said.

State Sen. Jason Carter, D-Decatur, has made school funding a focus of his campaign for governor, blasting Deal for signing into law budgets that don’t provide districts with all of the funding the state’s funding formula calls for them to receive. His campaign ripped Deal for even considering the recovery district plan.

“Gov. Deal drove this bus off a cliff, and now he’s trying to tell us he found a set of directions on the way down,” said Bryan Thomas, communications director for the Carter campaign. “After cutting $4 billion from our schools, this governor has no credibility when it comes to doing what’s right for the Georgia families who depend on quality public education.”

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