‘Plan B’ in works after defeat of school takeover plan in Georgia

Staff writer Ty Tagami contributed to this article.

After Gov. Nathan Deal’s top education initiative was trounced at the polls, some Republicans are quietly building consensus behind a new measure that would give the state more leeway to let students transfer from struggling schools.

The measure, floated this week by House leaders at a training conference in Athens for the upcoming legislative session, would not empower the governor’s office to take control of failing schools, as Deal’s Opportunity School District would have. But an early version of the plan would involve a six-step process to give the state Board of Education more leverage to let students in troubled classrooms go elsewhere.

"We want to work within the existing system we already have, working with the state Board of Education and the school superintendent," said state Rep. Kevin Tanner, the Dawsonville Republican who will sponsor the measure. "We're not creating a new bureaucracy; it doesn't require a constitutional amendment."

The proposal — being called a “Plan B” in statehouse circles — is already raising concerns from critics of Deal’s signature education initiative who say Republicans didn’t learn the lessons of the plan’s failure. Among them is Verdaillia Turner, who heads the Georgia Federation of Teachers.

“The agenda is clear to us. This governor is hell-bent on controlling governance in order to control dollars,” she said, adding: “It’s a privatization, control-the-money agenda.”

The specifics remain murky, but several people who were briefed on the plan said it would be a six-year process that would offer the state’s most troubled schools more administrative support and additional resources to help improve. If performance doesn’t improve, students could be offered vouchers or other help in switching to other schools.

‘There’s a route’

Tanner and other supporters said it would be designed to avoid the legal questions raised by a 2011 Georgia Supreme Court ruling that concluded that only county and area school boards have the explicit authority to create and maintain charter schools.

That ruling forced Deal to push for a constitutional amendment — which required two-thirds support in each chamber and a statewide referendum — rather than take the simpler route of a legislative change.

“We feel like we’d be on good constitutional ground,” said Tanner, a member of the House Education Committee. “We think there’s a route.”

Several experts in education law said it was too early to tell whether the measures would steer clear of the 2011 ruling, but they predicted the measure would face strict scrutiny. Hillel Levin, a constitutional and education law scholar, said the decision limits “the ability of the state to intervene in local school functions.”

The state is on “reasonably strong ground” in offering mentoring and other support but would be on shakier footing with heavy-handed interventions such as staff shakeups, said Levin, an associate law professor at the University of Georgia.

Deal, too, is exploring alternatives to give students in struggling schools more options. He said the burden is now on local school districts, many which fiercely opposed the proposal, to pick up the slack.

He’s been tight-lipped on specifics, but he and his aides have been in a revolving door of meetings with House and Senate lawmakers hoping to find a Plan B for the Opportunity School District plan. He said Tuesday that he is open to Tanner’s idea, and his top aide, Chris Riley, sounded supportive.

“With 68,000 students trapped in failing schools in Georgia by law,” Riley said, “every option should be considered.”

A broader approach

How it would jibe with current education laws is unclear.

Under Georgia law, the state Board of Education already has the authority to allow students in schools that have received “unacceptable” ratings for three years in a row to transfer — typically, so long as the parents can take care of transportation. But some critics say that provision is not used enough.

It also allows for other efforts to help failing schools, ranging from modest interventions such as new teaching strategies or mentoring for educators, to more extreme measures — which could also run afoul of the 2011 court ruling — such as replacing the staff.

Polls predicted a defeat for the Opportunity School District for months, and even Deal had floated the prospect of a Plan B. Still, the measure's lopsided defeat — it went down 60 percent to 40 percent with solid opposition from Republicans and Democrats — is a rebuke to his second-term initiative.

Deal’s allies cast the defeat as a byproduct of more than $5 million in spending from education groups and other opponents who see this as a national proxy battle. The opponents saw it as a government overreach that gives Deal’s office too much power.

And while Deal has vowed to press ahead with a Plan B for his failed initiative, as well as a long-promised broader proposal to rework the school funding formula, some supporters are urging him to tap the brakes.

State Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver of Decatur was one of a handful of Democrats who supported Deal's plan in the Legislature. She now said she wants administrators in DeKalb County and Atlanta — where the bulk of the struggling schools are located — to meet with Deal before charting a course ahead.

DeKalb Superintendent Steve Green, for one, set aside about $9 million for at-risk schools, with funding focused on the 10 schools with the lowest test grades. A broader plan is needed, Oliver said, to give additional state funding to schools with high levels of students living in poverty.

“It’s time for a serious conversation, and I want to make sure that DeKalb continues to spend on children who live in poverty — and that local leaders see this as the right direction,” Oliver said.