Legislature bypasses voters in education Plan B

When his proposed “Opportunity School District” constitutional amendment for state takeover of underperforming schools was resoundingly rejected by Georgians at the polls last November, an obviously frustrated Gov. Nathan Deal said voters had opted for the “status quo” of failing schools.

Georgians, most of whom are products of public schools and millions of whom have children in public schools, had done no such thing, of course. They care very much about the quality of public education. But they needed some answers concerning pesky and critically important details about which Amendment One didn’t even acknowledge the questions.

Fast forward to 2017, when the state House just passed, with overwhelming bipartisan support, HB 338, the school “Turnaround” bill. Its chief sponsor was Rep. Kevin Tanner, R-Dawsonville; its most influential backer on the other side of the aisle was minority leader Stacey Abrams, D-Atlanta. It was crafted with, if not the support of, at least the consent of and some consultation with, education groups that had opposed the November initiative.

Supporters of HB 338 say there are major differences. Critics say the biggest and most troublesome one is that this legislation is statutory rather than constitutional, which means the voters have no say in it. They’re both right.

If nothing else (and there appears to be much else), Tanner’s approach to this always touchy topic was more politic than the governor’s. Deal’s tactical error was one he had political precedent to help him avoid: the similarly ill-fated education reform effort of Georgia’s last Democratic governor.

Roy Barnes’ well-intentioned but ham-fisted “no excuses” rhetoric about the failings of public schools came across as punitive and arrogant. It didn’t help that the governor’s “Breakthrough Coalition” consisted largely of similarly well-intentioned people with little or no discernible experience or even familiarity with public schools, who were going to help decide what educators and administrators were doing wrong and how they were going to fix it. (Any of this sound familiar … in Atlanta or Washington?)

In contrast to such tiresome political obliviousness to reality, Tanner acknowledges that poverty is “a barrier to education” (thank you), and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports that companion legislation is in the works for “innovation grants” to support effective ways of educating poor children.

Like Amendment One, HB 338 would authorize the state, under the leadership of an appointed “chief turnaround officer,” to fire local school staffs and even remove whole schools from local board authority.

A chief difference: This official would be required to have an advanced degree, at least 10 years’ K-12 experience, at least three years as a principal or higher school official, and be trained in working with struggling schools. (Amendment One would have required no such qualifications.)

Also, state sanctions ostensibly would be imposed only if local authorities fail to follow school improvement plans they themselves work with state authorities to craft.

It is still a concern to educators — as perhaps it should be to everyone — that the state “turnaround” officer would report to the politically appointed state board of education instead of to the elected state superintendent.

This bill now goes to the Senate with essential issues of accountability still unresolved. It specifies the “who” of school authority, but not the what or the how. “I don’t see anything in this bill,” said Rep. David Wilkerson, D-Powder Springs, who voted against it, “that actually addresses raising the performance of students.” And indeed, parents of any student in a school under state control would have to climb a lot of bureaucratic rungs to reach anybody answerable to the public.

To make this law viable, the Senate must provide answers to questions that weren’t even acknowledged, much less answered, last fall.