Sides form — with some flexibility — over Georgia school takeover plan

Democratic opposition to Gov. Nathan Deal’s school takeover plan mounted Thursday as some local superintendents raised alarms about the sweeping proposal. But Republicans rallied behind Deal’s signature initiative, and the governor challenged critics to come up with a better idea.

The divisions were a preview of the contentious fight ahead over Deal’s plan to create a statewide “Opportunity School District” with the power to take control of schools deemed to be persistently failing. Under Deal’s proposal, the state would have final say over schools put into the district and could fire principals, transfer teachers and change the curriculum.

Many Republicans, who have commanding majorities in the state Legislature, voiced their support for the plan. But bipartisan backing will make or break the proposal, and Senate Democratic leaders said they were firmly against the measure even as their counterparts in the House took a more flexible approach.

The governor is moving aggressively to shape the debate. His aides met with clergy leaders Thursday to build support for the idea, and later this month he will lead a delegation to Louisiana, which has a similar program. In an interview Thursday, Deal urged its critics to confront the problem.

“What’s your idea? If you have no idea, you’re saying you’re satisfied with having failing schools in Georgia,” he said. “That is not acceptable to me. And I don’t think it should be acceptable to any member of the General Assembly.”

Democrats in the Senate plan to take him up on the offer. They will unveil a counterproposal built around the concept of “community schools” on Tuesday.

School leaders push back

Schools eligible for takeover under the plan would be those who scored less than 60 points on the state’s College and Career Ready Performance Index for three years in a row. An estimated 141 schools meet that definition, with more than 60 in metro Atlanta.

School superintendents pushed back on the argument that their schools are failing.

They said large numbers of their students are low-income, a historical educational disadvantage, or transient. Nearly every school that would be eligible for a takeover has more than 75 percent of its students who are eligible for free or reduced-price meals, a statistic used to measure poverty. Sixty-two percent of Georgia students are eligible for free or reduced-priced meals.

Among the critics was Clayton County Superintendent Luvenia Jackson, who said she is disappointed with the governor’s plan and said a “one-size-fits-all” approach doesn’t account for the diverse needs of the state’s school systems.

DeKalb County Superintendent Michael Thurmond, whose district has 26 schools on the list, said a more pressing priority would be to revise the state’s 30-year-old education funding formula to give more money to school districts with large percentages of low-income students. Deal has asked a study commission to vet the idea.

“This opens up an opportunity to have a long-delayed and much-needed conversation on how best to address generational poverty in Georgia,” Thurmond said.

Other educators signaled they were willing to consider the plan.

Sheila Nelloms is the principal of DeKalb’s Knollwood Elementary School, which is on the failing list. She said regular staff meetings to discuss student performance and twice-weekly reading and math tutorials have helped the school’s index scores tick up 12 points, but it’s still well below 60. A school needs the freedom to try different approaches to help students, she said. Nelloms said she’s not nervous about a potential state takeover.

“I’m going to do what it takes to make sure students succeed,” she said. “I’m an educator at heart.”

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

Passage will require votes from Democrats

Because it’s set up as a constitutional amendment, it requires a two-thirds vote in both legislative chambers before it could be put to voters on the 2016 ballot. To cross the finish line, Deal will have to persuade a handful of Democrats to support the bill along with most of the Republican caucus.

Getting those crossover votes will not be easy, and opposition was particularly fierce among Democrats in the Senate.

Senate Minority Leader Steve Henson has called the plan an “educational mirage,” and state Sen. Vincent Fort, the chamber’s No. 2 Democrat, circulated a printout detailing more than $170 million in austerity cuts to Atlanta Public Schools. There are more than two dozen schools from the district on Deal’s list of failing schools.

“This is not something that would get my vote,” said state Sen. Elena Parent, who will be part of the delegation Deal will lead to Louisiana. She said it was difficult to compare Georgia with Louisiana because of the large flow of philanthropic gifts that went to New Orleans schools following Hurricane Katrina.

“There’s no apples-to-apples comparison here,” said Parent, D-Atlanta, who added: “It will undoubtedly be a tough sell.”

Many Republicans praised the proposal as a bold step. Among them was state Sen. Fran Millar, R-Dunwoody, who said it might be the “salvation” for DeKalb constituents long frustrated by distressed schools.

“No one wants to admit they failed, but if schools are not working, we need to change the way it’s working,” Millar said.

Some remain silent, which is significant

Just as notable were the powerful groups and figures who fell silent on Thursday. State Schools Superintendent Richard Woods, who will attend the Louisiana trip, declined to comment through a spokesman. The Georgia School Boards Association also has yet to take a stance on the bill.

Another telling response was the “no comment” from House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams, who leads Democrats in that chamber. She and her deputies have taken a more conciliatory approach to the measure, refusing to attack it and praising its intent.

Parents of students in failing schools, meanwhile, were far more effusive. Donna Priest-Brown, a co-president of the South DeKalb Parent Council, said she’s not convinced funneling more money into failing south DeKalb schools would improve them.

“We’ve put in so much money, with Race to the Top and No Child Left Behind, but the (index) numbers are not changing,” she said, adding: “Whatever can turn around the school system, whatever it takes to do that, that’s what we need to do.”

Governor: Money alone won’t fix schools

Deal and his allies will mount a furious defense of the initiative over the next few weeks. In the interview Thursday, he dashed off a string of statistics to counter the criticisms of Thurmond and others who point to a funding lapse.

“I would say to them that 96 percent of those that are failing schools pay more than the average of the state of $8,400 per child per year. And about 26 percent of those spend considerably more than the state average,” Deal said. “If they say that money alone will fix this, then the statistics and the information that we have does not bear that out.”

Some school superintendents, he said, will likely move more proactively to address their distressed schools now that a school takeover looms. But he challenged those that don’t agree with his proposal to take a stand.

“If they’re saying they can do a better job if we left them to do it,” he said, “then the question becomes, why haven’t you already done it, and what is your plan to make it better?”

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Staff writers Tammy Joyner and Sonam Vashi contributed to this article.