A plan to expand charter schools gains traction in Georgia

Gov. Nathan Deal said Wednesday that he wants lawmakers to study a plan for a statewide school district that could significantly increase the number of charter schools in Georgia.

Deal said legislators should consider a system, known in Louisiana as a Recovery School District, that gives the state more powers to take over struggling schools and convert them to charters. The remarks came at an event with Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, whose state pioneered the program.

“We are faced with some of the similar situations that Louisiana is faced with,” Deal said. “We’re continuing to put money into school systems that continue to fail. That is not the end result that we want.”

The Republican is locked in a fierce re-election battle against Democrat Jason Carter, who relentlessly accuses the governor of failing to fully fund the state’s public education system. The governor has cast an expansion of charter schools as a more cost-effective way to improve schools.

Louisiana voters passed a constitutional amendment in 2003 that created the state-run Recovery School District, but the policy really took root after Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast. Nine years later, Jindal said, more than 90 percent of students in New Orleans are now in charter schools.

“There are too many kids in America who are trapped in failing schools,” said Jindal, a Republican who was in town to boost Deal’s campaign. “And charter schools are simply one more way to give those parents and children another option.”

Under the Louisiana system, the state can intervene in schools deemed “academically unacceptable” for four consecutive years. Those that receive charters receive state funding without being tied to requirements of local school boards. Those that fail to improve or meet standards would lose their charter.

Deal spokesman Brian Robinson said the governor isn’t tied to any specific proposal, but that he wants legislators to study the Louisiana plan as a way to boost failing schools.

The system has earned praise from some parents and community leaders who say the charter schools have spurred rising test scores and allowed administrators more leeway to innovate. State rankings show New Orleans schools rose from next-to-last in the state to the middle of the pack in Katrina’s aftermath.

But critics lament the downfall of neighborhood schools and say that many of the best charter schools still remain out of reach for struggling families. Others say that schools that have improved under the state’s watch have been slow to revert to local control.

Deal has been an ardent supporter of the expansion of charter schools since he took office. He backed a constitutional amendment, which passed in 2012, that allowed the state to approve charter schools. Opponents, including many Democrats, worried that the expansion would mean less money for traditional public schools.

Republicans see a political payoff, too, as the GOP tries to make inroads with minority voters. Deal and other Republicans have been eager to note that the charter school amendment earned overwhelming support in majority-black counties such as Clayton.

Senate Minority Whip Vincent Fort focused his criticism on Deal’s broader education policy.

“Nathan Deal needs to stop his attack on public education, stop the cuts and stop driving teachers out of the classroom,” he said, invoking Deal budget proposals that included austerity cuts to education. “Gimmicks are not the answer, and that’s all that Nathan Deal has to offer.”

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