The plan that could reshape Georgia’s failing schools

More than 100 of Georgia’s most troubled schools could face state takeover under a plan unveiled Wednesday by Gov. Nathan Deal that would give his office unprecedented new powers over local schools.

The plan would create 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 put into the special district and could remove principals and 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. The plan would allow the state to run 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.

It is the governor’s signature education proposal of the year, and comes after weeks of “listening sessions” with skeptical legislators. They would have to pass the initiative overwhelmingly for it to be put to voters on the 2016 ballot. The governor has framed it as a constitutional amendment, which requires two-thirds support in the House and the Senate. That means he’ll need to hold most Republicans, who have commanding majorities in both chambers, and lure a few Democrats to pass the measure.

“When we talk about helping failing schools, we’re talking about rescuing children,” said Deal. “I stand firm on the principle that every child can learn, and I stand equally firm in the belief that the status quo isn’t working.”

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.

Under the current plan, 27 Atlanta Public Schools would be eligible, more than any other district in the state. DeKalb is close behind with 26. Fulton has seven and Clayton three. Two state-approved charter schools are on the list of low performers as well. No schools from Cobb or Gwinnett are on the list.

Atlanta Superintendent Meria Carstarphen said in a statement the district is already making changes it hopes will improve student performance.

“We hope that through building trusting, collaborative relationships with our communities that APS will be able to achieve positive outcomes for our students without state intervention,” she said.

Opposition to the plan is already mounting. Democrats say they plan to release their own plan to tackle failing schools Monday. Senate Minority Leader Steve Henson, D-Tucker, called it an “educational mirage” and called for an increase in school funding after years of billions of dollars in austerity cuts to education.

“Yes, we have a problem with failing schools, and yes we need to correct the problem,” he said. “But we don’t accomplish this by privatizing the public school system, denying equal education to all Georgia students and by refusing to address the fact that we have short-changed our state education system by $8 billion over the past 12 years.”

The Opportunity School District would be capped at 100 schools overall. Schools would stay in the district for a minimum of five years and not more than 10 years. Those provisions aim to address critics who worry the proposal gives the governor’s office too much power and includes no exit plan for schools that recover.

Some families of students at long-struggling schools cheered the new plan. Priscilla Davenport said her daughter, who attends DeKalb’s McNair High School, would bolt to another school in a heartbeat if not for the college program she’s taking at Georgia State University.

“It’s frustrating,” said Davenport. “I’ve been frustrated for years at McNair’s performance. And I haven’t seen any change. It’s time for a new approach.”

The legislation comes as Deal has put off other campaign promises, such as a vow to overhaul the 30-year-old education funding formula, until next year. His staff has met legislators to let them air their concerns, and he plans to lead a bipartisan delegation this month to Louisiana, which has a similar statewide plan.

Still, it’s been a slow roll-out for the plan, introduced more than a quarter of the way through a 40-day legislative session that’s expected to end April 2. On Wednesday, lawmakers in both the House and Senate heard for the first time about how similar state-run districts are performing in Louisiana and Tennessee.

Opposition, meanwhile, has built up during the runup to the bill’s formal introduction.

Tim Callahan, spokesman for the Professional Association of Georgia Educators, the state’s largest teacher advocacy group, said, “We are certainly open to the discussion but we remain concerned that this concept may not lend itself to Georgia and that simply changing the administrative structures and management of schools filled with impoverished students struggling to learn does little to address the root causes of their struggles.”

Superintendent Richard Woods, whose office could be marginalized by the move, declined comment Wednesday but has hinted at his discomfort. And some lawmakers from both parties are wary of giving the state broad new powers.

The measure’s chief supporters, though, said a school rescue plan is long overdue. State Sen. Butch Miller, R-Gainesville, said a bold approach is sorely needed.

“It’s not a one-size-fits-all,” said Miller, who sponsored the bill. “You would have a different address, a different business plan for each individual school. And I would say to those educators who might push back and challenge this that, if they know what to do why aren’t they doing it?”