Georgia's Plan to Take Over Failing Schools Faces Long Odds

Opposition to the proposal has swelled in recent weeks as the state tries to imitate Tennessee's Achievement School District.
BY  NOVEMBER 4, 2016

Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal: “Liberals cannot defend leaving a child trapped in a failing school that sentences them to a life in poverty." (AP/David Goldman)

Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal wants to join a burgeoning movement that would allow a state takeover of chronically failing schools. But with less than a week left before Georgians vote on the proposal, he faces an uphill battle as the track record of takeovers elsewhere has yielded inconsistent results and public opinion appears solidly against the idea.

The ballot proposal asks whether the state should be allowed to “intervene” to improve “chronically failing” schools. If approved, it would trigger legislation passed last year by lawmakers that creates a new state agency with its own state school superintendent appointed by the governor.

This superintendent would oversee the so-called Opportunity School District, which could take over up to 20 new schools per year and govern no more than 100 schools at any one time. The schools eligible are those that have earned an “F” on the state’s accountability system three years in a row.

In addition to the state running the school, a takeover could also lead to a school being shut down or turned into a charter. To exit, a school has to score above failing for three straight years. Schools could operate in the Opportunity School District for up to 10 years.

Georgia joins eight other states -- Arkansas, Missouri, Nevada, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Texas, Utah and Wisconsin -- in trying to duplicate a pioneering effort in Tennessee. That program launched the Achievement School District (ASD) in 2012 and has the goal of lifting the state’s worst-performing 5 percent of schools to the top 25 percent in five years.

Most of the ASD’s 33 schools are in Memphis and have shown solid gains in math and science. But it’s unclear if the oldest schools in the program will meet the five-year goal and questions remain over how to return local control.

In Georgia, nearly 130 schools have a failing score from the Georgia Department of Education’s College and Career Ready Performance Index. In proposing the ballot initiative, Deal, a Republican, has said some local school districts have failed children for too long.

“Liberals cannot defend leaving a child trapped in a failing school that sentences them to a life in poverty,” he said in last year’s State of the State address.

Thomas B. Fordham Institute President Mike Petrilli, who is supportive of Georgia’s plan, said Tennessee’s ASD model is attractive because it gets at the root of the problem.

“The school is just a symptom -- the disease is the district itself,” he said.

By way of explanation, Petrilli said that a district could give veteran teachers first dibs on new placements, leading to a situation where the better, more experienced teachers are migrating to the more affluent schools.

“The notion of plucking the schools out of that dysfunction,” he said, “is really powerful.”

But Georgia voters aren’t sold on the idea. A recent poll by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution found voters opposed the idea 2 to 1, and opponents warn the proposal will add more bureaucracy and wrest away neighborhood schools from local control. Opponents include teachers, school boards, the PTA and former Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young.

“This is the re-segregation and privatization of public schools at the public's expense,” the Georgia Federation of Teachers has said.

Michigan’s floundering efforts at school takeover have also provided ammunition to opponents. Petrilli called that effort “ham-handed” because it didn’t allow for enough flexibility to make institutional changes and essentially just changed the district’s reporting structure from local officials to a state commissioner. Of the 15 schools in the state’s Education Achievement Authority created in 2011, 13 of them are still listed as failing and one is listed as closed.

“They really botched it,” said Petrilli.

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