Georgia voters are being asked to approve a new and controversial way to improve public education. The proposal would empower the state to take over chronically failing schools or convert them to charters or even close them.
It’s called Amendment 1 on the Nov. 8 ballot, and it’s called the Opportunity School District in the legislation that authorized it. The Georgia General Assembly passed Senate Bill 133 during this year’s session with the required two-thirds majority in both chambers. The referendum now needs a simple majority from voters to become law.
The OSD referendum starts with this preamble on the ballot:
“Provides greater flexibility and state accountability to fix failing schools through increasing community involvement.”
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Then it asks voters this question:
“Shall the Constitution of Georgia be amended to allow the state to intervene in chronically failing public schools in order to improve student performance?”
Gov. Nathan Deal’s OSD proposal, based on similar initiatives in Louisiana and Tennessee, would allow Georgia’s governor to appoint an OSD superintendent, separate from the Georgia Department of Education superintendent, who is elected by voters. The OSD superintendent could take over as many as 20 eligible schools each year and control no more than 100 such schools at any time. The OSD superintendent could waive Georgia Board of Education rules, reorganize or fire staff and change school budgets and curriculum. The state also could convert OSD schools to nonprofit or for-profit charter schools or close them if they don’t have full enrollment.
The state would use the College and Career Ready Performance Index to determine which schools are eligible for takeover. Schools that score below 60 on the 100-point CCRPI for three straight years could be included in the OSD. Those schools would stay in the OSD for no less than five years (or, if they are an OSD charter school, for the length of the initial charter’s term) and no more than 10 years before returning to local control. Opportunity Schools could be removed from the OSD whenever they are graded above an F in the state’s accountability system for three straight years.
Muscogee County had 10 of the 141 schools on the state’s original list of chronically failing schools released last year. Georgetown and Rigdon Road elementary schools, however, improved enough with other schools in the state on the 2015 CCRPI to move off the list. That leaves 127 schools in Georgia and these eight in Muscogee on the current list: Baker Middle School and Davis, Dawson, Forrest Road, Fox, Lonnie Jackson, Martin Luther King Jr. and South Columbus elementary schools.
The case for Yes
OSD proponents cite the number of chronically failing schools as the most obvious reason to try something drastically new. They also note the reduction in the number of chronically failing schools since the threat of state takeover became possible after Senate Bill 133 passed.
Deal says on his proposal’s website, “While Georgia boasts many schools that achieve academic excellence every year, we still have too many schools where students have little hope of attaining the skills they need to succeed in the workforce or in higher education. We have a moral duty to do everything we can to help these children. Failing schools keep the cycle of poverty spinning from one generation to the next. Education provides the only chance for breaking that cycle. When we talk about helping failing schools, we’re talking about rescuing children. 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.”
Alyssa Botts, spokewoman for the pro-Amendment 1 campaign committee Opportunity for All Georgia Students noted, “The graduation rate for students attending failing schools is an abysmal 55.7 percent,” compared to the most recent statewide figure of 78.8 percent in the class of 2015.
“A school that fails to properly educate its students perpetuates cycles of poverty and increases the likelihood of incarceration,” Botts said in an email to the Ledger-Enquirer. “For many students, educational opportunities provide the best chance to break out of these cycles. … Voting ‘yes’ for the Opportunity School District amendment is a vote to ensure that future generations of Georgians will have the best opportunities available. No child in Georgia should be forced by law to attend a failing school.”
The governor-appointed Georgia Board of Education and the Georgia Chamber of Commerce have endorsed the OSD referendum.
Michael O’Sullivan, executive director of the Georgia Campaign for Achievement Now, part of the 50-state CAN nonprofit organization advocating “a high-quality education for all kids, regardless of their address,” has successfully fought a similar political battle, helping to convince voters to approve the 2012 Georgia charter school amendment. And the OSD is the next logical step, he figures.
“What this has done is create a sense of urgency for districts to act,” O’Sullivan said in an interview with the Ledger-Enquirer. “Voters should be asking what’s being done now? What plans are in place to improve our schools? That’s the ultimate goal. How can we ensure that every student in the state has access to quality education? Right now, 68,000 students attend a school that has failed at least three years or more.”
The opposition is based on being “afraid of loss of control,” O’Sullivan said. “… It’s my hope that opponents would be putting as much effort into fixing their schools so they aren’t eligible for the OSD. I can tell you which option will be best for schools.”
O’Sullivan emphasized that state takeover is only one option for intervention in the OSD.
“There is the ability for the state to assist schools that are failing for one year or two years, and then, after three years, there is a multiple intervention model,” he said. “One is a joint governance structure, with the OSD and the local school district working together to turn around the school.”
Addressing concerns that OSD schools would receive less funding, O’Sullivan said, “Whatever amount that would have been dedicated to that school remains in that school.”
Louisiana enacted the Recovery School District in 2003. The RSD comprises 62 autonomous charter schools in Orleans, East Baton Rouge and Caddo parishes with a total enrollment of more than 32,000 students, according to the RSD’s 2015 annual report. The percentage of RSD schools considered to be failing has been reduced from 44 percent in 2011 to 19 percent in 2015, the report says.
According to the RSD’s 2014 annual report, the percentage of students performing at the basic level or above increased 29 percentage points from 2008 to 2014, while the state average increased 9 percentage points.
In New Orleans, 63 percent of the public school students are in the RSD. According to a June 2015 study by Patrick Sims and Vincent Rossmeier of the Cowen Institute for Public Education Initiatives at Tulane University, “the percentage of (New Orleans) students at the basic level or above has increased 15 percentage points over the past six years. That growth has largely come from the RSD, which has improved by 20 percentage points.”
In Tennessee, as of the 2015-16 school, there were 29 schools in the Achievement School District, enacted in 2010 with the goal of moving the state’s bottom 5 percent of school into the top 25 percent of student achievement. The ASD has made progress, according to its July 2015 report.
“Over a three-year period, ASD students have earned double-digit gains in math and science proficiency and have grown faster than their state peers,” the report says.
The ASD reading scores, however, declined along with the state average.
“We know from national research and our own experience that reading growth tends to lag behind other subjects in a school turnaround setting,” Malika Anderson, then the ASD deputy superintendent and now its superintendent, says in the report.
The case for No
Georgia Federation of Teachers president Verdaillia Turner, a retired Atlanta educator, has seen the statistics that indicate state takeovers improved student achievement, but her organization touts evidence that argues otherwise.
The federation says in its campaign literature that the Southern Poverty Law Center filed a lawsuit against the state-created school district in New Orleans on behalf of 4,500 students for denying appropriate services. A July 2015 SPLC fact sheet notes that, while an average of 19.4 percent of students with disabilities graduated high school in Louisiana, only 6.8 percent of them graduated in the Recovery School District.
A February 2016 report titled “State Takeovers of Low-Performing Schools: A Record of Academic Failure, Financial Mismanagement and Student Harm” from the Center for Popular Democracy, a liberal-leaning nonprofit advocacy group, found that state takeovers of schools in Louisiana, Michigan and Tennessee produced:
▪ “Negligible improvement — or even dramatic setbacks — in their educational performance.”
▪ “A breeding ground for fraud and mismanagement at the public’s expense.”
▪ “High turnover and instability” among staff, “creating a disrupted learning environment for children.”
▪ “Harsh disciplinary measures and discriminatory practices” for students of color and those with special needs.
Turner fears too much of the motivation for the OSD proposal is about creating profit opportunities in public schools for private charter school companies.
“The bottom line here is that this is a new business at the public’s expense,” Turner said in an interview with the Ledger-Enquirer. “The only thing public about these schools is our tax dollars.”
The federation notes the OSD may retain 3 percent of state funds for administrative operations, reducing the amount of money available for instruction.
“I love my state, and I respect the office of the governor and all of government,” Turner said. “However, this is still a democracy, and we believe that educators and the public need not be misled by what’s about to happen.”
That includes the OSD superintendent’s authority to “get rid of people at will” at any OSD school, Turner said. “The law says, the last line in Senate Bill 133 says, all laws in conflict with this act are repealed.”
Turner noted the state’s standardized testing system has changed the past five consecutive years. “Therefore, we know it’s not reliable,” she said.
In many chronically failing schools, Turner said, “children end up going to jail. But in many of these same schools, children go to Yale. So we need to have a real conversation about what makes schools work.”
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has reported that a political group called the Committee to Keep Georgia Schools Local has a TV ad campaign opposing the OSD referendum. The group includes the Georgia Association of Educators, Georgia AFL-CIO, the Professional Association of Georgia Educators, Georgia Stand-Up, the Coalition for the People’s Agenda, Public Education Matters, Southern Education Foundation, Working America, Pro Georgia, Better Georgia, Georgia Federation of Teachers and Concerned Black Clergy of Metro Atlanta, according to the AJC.
The Georgia School Boards Association’s board of directors voted to oppose the amendment. School boards representing the counties of Bibb, Chatham, Cherokee, Clayton, Fayette, Henry, Richmond and Troup have expressed opposition.
The Muscogee County School Board was scheduled to join them last month, but the proposed resolution was deleted from the agenda between the Sept. 12 work session and the Sept. 20 meeting. Neither superintendent David Lewis nor board chairman Rob Varner has responded to the Ledger-Enquirer’s requests for an explanation.
Responding on their behalf, MCSD communications director Valerie Fuller also didn’t explain the sudden change in thinking, who proposed the resolution, who rescinded it and why. Here is her statement in an email to the Ledger-Enquirer:
“The Muscogee County School District is a public school system, which is supported by taxpayer money. All of our stakeholders (taxpayers, students, parents, teachers administrators and staff) have different opinions on this proposal. Although we believe, and the results indicate, that we are making progress with our challenged schools, to take a side could anger supporters, who might say the BOE is opposed to helping ‘failing’ schools.
“We don’t think it would be wise for a publicly elected body to pass a resolution in opposition of this amendment that might result in controversy, causing unnecessary distractions from the work being done on behalf of these schools. Because this could result in a change to Georgia’s Constitution, we do believe it is important for voters to read and be fully informed about the amendment and its implications.”
In a letter Tuesday to school district superintendents and Regional Education Service Agency directors, Georgia Department of Education deputy superintendent for external affairs and policy Garry McGiboney reminded public school officials that the Georgia Office of the Attorney General advised the GaDOE in 2012, “Local school boards do not have the legal authority to expend funds or other resources to advocate or oppose the ratification of a constitutional amendment by the voters.”
Regardless of whether the proposed OSD is good for Georgia, the referendum’s wording doesn’t accurately explain it, some folks insist. The Georgia PTA called it “deceptive.”
“If the governor and state legislators believe the best way to fix struggling schools is to put them under state control and either close them or turn them over to charter schools, then let the language on the ballot reflect this initiative,” Georgia PTA president Lisa-Marie Haygood said in a news release. “As it stands, the preamble, and indeed, the entire amendment question, is intentionally misleading and disguises the true intentions of the OSD legislation.”
To that end, a class-action lawsuit was filed Sept. 27 against the governor, Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle and Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp. The three lead plaintiffs, all from metro Atlanta — parent Kimberly Brooks, First Iconium Baptist Church senior pastor Timothy McDonald III and Coweta County teacher Melissa Ladd — allege in the complaint that the wording is “so misleading and deceptive that it violates the due process and voting rights of all Georgia voters.”
Gerry Weber, an Atlanta lawyer representing the three lead plaintiffs, told the Ledger-Enquirer in an interview the Georgia Supreme Court ruled about 10 years ago that a challenge to the wording of ballot measures must be decided after the vote because the lawsuit would be moot if the proposal fails.
The Ledger-Enquirer asked Deal spokeswoman Jen Talaber Ryan for the governor’s response to the allegation about the referendum’s wording. Ryan replied in an email, “The opposition didn’t attend the publicly announced constitutional amendment meeting where the language was discussed and approved. Why don’t you ask them why? And the preamble and question say exactly what the OSD will do — provide a lifeline for children forced by law to attend a failing school. The only thing misleading here is the fact that national, outside special interest groups are spending money instead of local groups. After all, their go to line is about ‘local control.’ Hypocritical, don’t you think?”
Keep Georgia Schools Local campaign manager Louis Elrod told the Ledger-Enquirer in an email from media relations manager Michelle Davis, “It’s unbelievable that pro-school takeover advocates would make this charge. They are grasping at straws because they’re desperate and losing this fight.
“They know full well that many members of our bipartisan coalition of parents, teachers and public school advocates actively petitioned for changes to both the amendment and the ballot question at multiple hearings. The even more deceptive preamble language was drafted at a separate meeting in Deal’s office. Janet Kishbaugh of Public Education Matters Georgia says she and other opponents called and searched online daily to find an announcement of this meeting. It was later revealed that the preamble was written in Deal’s office in a meeting attended only by the three men who drafted the words.
“The pro-takeover campaign’s political maneuvering just confirms what we know about their intentions — this amendment is designed to silence parents and strip away local control.”
Do your homework and vote
The Georgia Partnership for Excellence in Education has taken a neutral position on the OSD referendum, but the partnership’s president, Steve Dolinger, is advocating this:
“The important thing is Georgia voters do their own homework on this issue and make their decision based on solid research and fact-finding, not emotion,” Dolinger, who was superintendent of Fulton County Schools (1995-2002), said in an email to the Ledger-Enquirer from Bill Maddox, the partnership’s communications director. “Both sides make compelling arguments, but it should always come down to what the voter feels is right for the children of our state.”
The Professional Association of Georgia Educators will host a discussion of Amendment 1, the proposed Opportunity School District, during a public forum from 6 to 8 p.m. Tuesday, at Friendship Hall in Flat Rock Park, 6106 Warm Springs Road. For more information about the event, call PAGE communications director Craig Harper at 404-550-8807.