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Debate begins on new proposal to turn around failing schools

As Georgia lawmakers considered a new proposal Thursday for turning around chronically failing schools, critics called it a reincarnation of Amendment 1, which voters turned down in November. Amendment 1 would have let the state take over such schools and place them in a statewide Opportunity School District.

Chairman of the House Transportation Committee Kevin Tanner, R-Dawsonville, presented the new proposal, House Bill 338, to the Georgia House Education Committee. It provides resources to failing schools to “help them stand on (their) own two feet,” he said.

“My intent here is to help children in struggling schools. It’s not a political intent. It’s not an intent for the state to come in and take over K-12 education,” said Tanner.

HB 338 would create a “chief turnaround officer” to oversee schools that are “unacceptable” and “low-performing” for more than two years. That person, appointed by the governor, would have at least 15 years of K-12 experience, at least 3 years of experience as the principal of a public school and experience turning around failing schools.

Tanner believes that expertise and leadership would have a big impact. He said “just sending a check to (failing) districts is not going to get the job done.”

Louis Elrod, Better Georgia’s political director and campaign manager for the 2016 anti-school takeover campaign, said, “Legislators should ask their constituents what they thought of Amendment 1 before they vote on HB 338.” He said in a statement that the bill is “the same as the one defeated by voters with only minor window dressing.” Amendment 1 was rejected by 60 percent of voters on Election Day.

The Georgia Federation of Teachers released a statement calling HB 338 “the new OSD” and “more of the same governance and money grab spun another way.”

Tanner said the bill’s approach is not to take over schools but to give schools incentives to cooperate. “OSD was a constitutional amendment that would allow the state to have the power to come in and physically take over your school system, and you had no say in that,” he said. “This legislation in front of you today is all about the school agreeing to do it.”

State Rep. Mike Glanton, D-Jonesboro, worked on Amendment 1 and served on Gov. Deal’s Education Reform Commission and believes HB 338 accounts for concerns raised about OSD. “I think this is an attempt, number one, to maintain local control,” he said.

Tanner said the most severe interventions under HB338 would not be on under-performing schools, but on uncooperative schools. He does not expect a school performing in the 30th percentile to completely turn around in two years, but he does expect it to cooperate with the turnaround officer to implement changes within two years. He also noted that no districts currently qualify for the harshest intervention, suspending board members.

“This is all about trying to make a partnership to work together. It’s not about punitive action.”

State School Superintendent Richard Woods offered the committee a number of amendments, many of which would shift authority over the turnaround officer from the State Board of Education to the Department of Education, which he leads. He expressed reservations over how well the new turnaround setup would work with the DOE but was grateful that the bill would increase the department’s capacity.

“As a conservative, I do have concerns about creating a bureaucracy within an existing bureaucracy,” he said. “One thing I’ve found out is that typically bureaucracies have a way of growing.”

The bill is in a very early stage of the legislative process and may be changed by the committee before being passed on to the House.

“I think we’ll have a little better understanding once the bill goes through the vetting process and we hear what people are for and against in the bill,” Glanton said. “Debate starts today.”

House Bill 338

The bill empowers the state to make drastic changes in the lowest performing schools. It would:

  • Create the position of Chief Turnaround Officer to oversee schools that are “unacceptable” and “low-performing” for more than two years
  • Empower the Director of School Turnaround to track school performance and make changes in schools that fail to improve
  • Provide the state with interventions ranging from replacing school staff to taking over schools and handing them over to other school districts or private nonprofits
  • Give the governor power to suspend school board members in school districts where at least half the schools receive unacceptable ratings for at least five years

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