Georgia voters will weigh in on failing schools

Georgia voters will weigh in on failing schools

October 30th, 2016 by Kendi A. Rainwater in Local Regional News

Ballot amendment language

Amendment 1 reads: Shall the Constitution of Georgia be amended to allow the state to intervene in chronically failing public schools in order to improve student performance?

A “yes” vote supports authorizing the state to take over low-performing schools and form a state-run Opportunity School District.

A “no” vote opposes authorizing the state to take over low-performing schools or form a state-run Opportunity School District, thereby allowing local school boards and districts to manage these schools.

*By the numbers:


*If Amendment 1 is passed by Georgia voters, previously passed legislation states:

  • A school is eligible for the Opportunity School District if it has been ranked failing by Georgia’s accountability system for the last three years. A school is considered failing if it has received a score of 60 or below on the state’s College and Career Ready Performance Index. The index gives each school a score between zero and 110, based on things like attendance, graduation rates and standardized test scores.
  • The Opportunity School District will take up to 20 schools the first year, and will never manage more than 100 schools at any time. Schools will remain within the Opportunity School District for up to 10 years, and will be removed from the district only after they score above failing for three consecutive years.
  • If a school is taken over by the Opportunity School District it will either be shuttered, run by the appointed superintendent or converted into a charter school.

 

Tennesseans have debated for years how to turn around chronically failing schools, and now voters in Georgia are taking up the issue on the Nov. 8 ballot.

If Georgians vote to amend the state constitution, the state will gain authority to take over low- performing schools by creating a state-run Opportunity School District separate from local school systems. The approach is modeled in part after Tennessee's Achievement School District, which is considering taking over several Hamilton County schools.

Tennessee lawmakers created the Achievement School District to boost improvements in schools ranking in the bottom 5 percent statewide. Hamilton County has five such "priority schools" — Brainerd High, Dalewood Middle, Orchard Knob Elementary, Orchard Knob Middle and Woodmore Elementary — and about a dozen schools are on the cusp of joining the list.

Due to the lack of improvement in Hamilton County's priority schools, the state said it's considering expanding the achievement district or other intervention options.

"We are concerned about the students who are in Hamilton County's priority schools," said Sara Gast, communications director for the Tennessee Department of Education.

Schools in Nashville and Memphis have posted mixed results since the Achievement School District launched in 2012, and a Vanderbilt study found no evidence that students in the achievement districts were performing better or worse than their peers in other priority schools. The district operates about 30 schools.

But ASD Superintendent Malika Anderson told the House Education Committee in August that schools with several years in the achievement district are seeing significant improvements.

The threat of a state takeover of local schools also puts pressure on districts to urgently address their lowest-performing schools, Anderson said.

"We've made substantive improvements for students in our schools and we've helped catalyze improvements across the state," she told committee members.

But opponents of Georgia's Opportunity School District point to static test scores in many achievement district schools, as well as the district's use of charter schools and how school control is stripped from communities.

The issue is emotionally charged for many Georgia parents and educators, and Sid Chapman, president of the Georgia Education Association, called the proposed amendment a "wake-up call."

"Public schools as we know [them] could go away," Chapman said.

As in Tennessee, schools in the opportunity districts would continue to receive funding on a per-pupil basis from Georgia taxpayers. But the constitutional amendment approved last year by the Georgia House and Senate doesn't designate additional funds for schools selected for takeover. Tennessee's plan pumped additional funding from a federal education grant into many priority schools.

Chapman said extra money would be more helpful than the state meddling in schools and hiring a new batch of teachers.

Proponents of Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal's plan argue opponents of the amendment to start the Opportunity School District are more concerned about teachers than the predominantly poor and minority students assigned to chronically low-performing schools because of their ZIP codes.

Deal, a Republican in his final term, has blasted the critics, saying they're allowing failure to fester in schools and robbing students of an equitable education and opportunity.

If voters approve the Opportunity School District, Deal will be responsible for appointing a district superintendent who will report directly to the governor. The superintendent would select the schools to be taken over.

Nearly 130 out of more than 2,000 schools in Georgia are considered failing and eligible to join the Opportunity School District if the amendment passes. None of these schools are in Northwest Georgia; most are in the Atlanta area.

Georgia's elected school superintendent, Richard Woods, said his department's role in the proposal is simple.

"It's our job to make sure schools aren't failing in the first place," Woods said in a statement. "I've charged my staff with making sure no school ends up on this list because they didn't have the resources and support they needed from us."

Whether or not the amendment passes, Woods said his mission will not change.

"We will offer every possible resource and support to schools," he said.

Contact staff writer Kendi A. Rainwater at 423-757-6592 or krainwater@timesfreepress.com. Follow on Twitter @kendi_and.