Governor’s plan to take over failing schools passes Georgia Senate

Gov. Nathan Deal’s plan to take over as many as 100 low-performing public schools statewide passed its first major test Thursday when the Georgia Senate approved what many educators still view as wrong-headed.

The proposal now faces a likely tougher test as it moves to the state House, where a more fractious GOP majority will need Democrats’ help toward passage. Deal wasted no time in congratulating the “courage” of senators who supported it and issuing a call for support across the Capitol.

“As the House considers this bill, I am confident that its members will also put the needs of Georgia’s most vulnerable students first,” Deal said. “Through the efforts of our legislators, we will put this referendum on the ballot so that Georgians can assure that a child’s chance of success isn’t dependent on his or her ZIP code.”

Deal’s plan has been laid out in two companion pieces of legislation, Senate Resolution 287 and Senate Bill 133. The Senate’s first vote on SR 287 was considered a key test because, as a proposed amendment to the Georgia Constitution, it needed two-thirds support in the chamber. It got it, but nothing more: 38 members including one Democrat — Sen Freddie Powell Sims, D-Dawson — voted for it, the bare minimum in the chamber to meet that mandate.

One Republican, Sen. Mike Crane, R-Newnan, voted against it and has said that, among other concerns, he would have preferred to have first piloted the program. Another Democrat, Sen. Donzella James, D-Atlanta, did not cast a vote after being summoned to the chamber from her office and, according to staffers, being pressured by GOP leadership to vote yes to assure their margin.

In a way, it represented a bittersweet victory: While Sims had publicly acknowledged her decision by signing onto the legislation, the rest of the minority caucus locked down. It was only the second time in three years Senate Democrats had taken a caucus position.

On the second vote, SB 133 passed 38-17.

Local control a debating point

Democrats said the plan gave unprecedented state control over local schools and allowed the “permanent hijacking” of local funds to pay for it. They also questioned whether it could work. New Orleans school officials just last week had given lawmakers a candid account of the challenges in taking over struggling schools after they pioneered the model more than a decade ago.

SR 287 and SB 133 together form Deal’s vision of a statewide “Opportunity School District” with authority to seize control of schools deemed to be perennially failing. The state would have total authority over the schools in the special district, and it could remove principals, transfer teachers, change what students are learning and control the schools’ budgets.

Deal’s office estimates 141 schools would be eligible, including more than 60 in metro Atlanta. Not all would be chosen, though.

The plan defines “persistently failing schools” that would be targeted as those scoring below 60 for three years in a row on the College and Career Performance Index — the state’s annual report card for school performance. Annual enrollment in the program would be capped at 20 schools a year, up to 100 at any one time.

The plan would allow the state to run the schools, close them, partner with local school districts to run them or convert them into charter schools. The special district would be overseen by a new superintendent who would report directly to the governor.

SB 133 sets out the parameters of the proposal. SR 287 would ask voters statewide for permission to fund what essentially would be a new school district controlled by the governor’s office. It is based on a model used in Louisiana, which has produced notable academic gains in New Orleans but had less success in other parts of the state. A similar approach has also been adopted in Tennessee and Michigan.

Education groups line up against plan

The bill has been criticized by several of Georgia’s most influential education groups who feel it infringes on local control.

The Georgia School Boards Association said there’s a better way for the state to intervene in failing schools that’s already prescribed in state law. The Georgia Association of Educational Leaders said the state shouldn’t look to Louisiana and Tennessee for inspiration and instead should study Gwinnett County Public Schools, which is logging solid academic results with poor and minority students.

The Georgia Association of Educators said the Opportunity District approach would create a fragmented system that would be especially damaging to students with disabilities and ignore other state efforts designed to improve student results. It also questioned why the special school district would exist independently of the state Department of Education, which is overseen by an elected superintendent.

“To create a new bureaucracy with the sole oversight of the governor is the antithesis of our system of government,” GAE President Sid Chapman said. “This legislation is wholly unnecessary, usurps resources from the local school district and lacks any accountability to the families affected by this state takeover idea.”

The proposed legislation has also sparked concern from some Georgia superintendents who oppose losing control of local schools. Clarke County School Superintendent Phil Lanoue, who was recently named National Superintendent of the Year, said the state has existing systems in place to improve schools.

“Checks and balances are key in our governance, and it is extremely disconcerting to skirt any process fundamental to the institution of democracy,” Lanoue said. “To change the Georgia State Constitution to give any governor the unchallenged authority to take over schools that meet their definition of ‘failing’ is a huge step backward for public education.”

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