Georgia lawmakers are trying a new approach on the most intractable problem in public education, three months after voters refused to amend the state constitution so that an appointee of the governor could take over “chronically failing” schools.
Those two words do not appear in House Bill 338, the much anticipated “plan B” that had been on the table since Gov. Nathan Deal vowed to revisit the issue after the decisive defeat of Amendment 1 at the polls in November. Instead, the legislation filed by five Republican co-sponsors and others Friday uses terms like “unacceptable” and “low-performing.”
Though it differs from the failed constitutional amendment in significant ways, there are striking similarities.
As Deal’s Opportunity School District — a central plank of his second term educational agenda — would have done, the new proposal would allow the state to step into the lowest performing schools and replace the staff or even take over the operation and hand it to someone else to run. Under HB 338, though, local dollars allocated to those schools wouldn’t flow to the state, and the schools would not be absorbed into a new state-run district. Instead, they could be turned over to another, “successful,” school district or to a private nonprofit — or the district could be compelled to bus the students to a better-performing school.
“We still have a growing number of schools in the state that are failing to produce adequate results,” said Rep. Christian Coomer, R-Cartersville, explaining why this bill is needed. Coomer is a co-sponsor, along with chief co-sponsor Kevin Tanner, R-Dawsonville.
Coomer also supported Amendment 1, and said this legislation represents an attempt at compromise with school boards, teachers groups and others who opposed the Opportunity School District and have been bending Tanner’s ears. They argued that control over schools should remain under locally elected school boards, and Coomer described this legislation as less invasive and more collaborative with school boards and others.
Even so, it contains some harsh penalties, like giving the governor the authority to suspend school board members in districts where at least half the schools are judged to be under-performing.
“The Georgia School Boards Association is continuing to work with the bill’s author on that provision,” said Angela Palm, the group’s lobbyist.
Chuck Clay, a former state senator who now lobbies for the Georgia Education Coalition, a collection of some of the largest and fastest-growing school districts, said everyone wants to improve schools but that’s about as far as the consensus gets. “Everybody has a slightly different view of how to get there,” he said. Educators contend that poverty is a thread running through failing schools, and that it’s a societal problem that must be unraveled if schools are to succeed. “Most of us know the true problems in schools are much more intractable,” Clay said.
HB 338 seems to acknowledge that. It says the turnaround effort must address community problems, “such as poverty, lack of economic development, safety, transportation options for parents and students, adult educational opportunities, wellness and mental health services … .” It does not say how all this would be paid for, though it does say “state and community resources” should be identified.
The Professional Association of Georgia Educators, the state’s largest teacher advocacy group, was concerned about the lack of a clear funding source, but appreciated Tanner’s decision to include the language about poverty.
“We are pleased to see the bill’s provision for a more robust root-cause analysis of why schools are struggling, including community factors,” said Craig Harper, their spokesman.
The group was troubled, though, by the line of authority over the position that would be created to monitor schools and determine which needed to be improved or even taken over.
The chief turnaround officer would report to the state education board, which is appointed by the governor. The teachers’ group would rather see that person reporting to the state school superintendent, the elected official who oversees the state education department.
Richard Woods, the superintendent, is not taking a position on the bill yet. A spokesman said he will comment eventually, but needs time to review it. “He looks forward to working with the legislature and Gov. Deal on a bill that appropriately addresses improving under-performing schools,” the spokesman said.
Deal’s office said on Twitter that the governor appreciates Tanner’s work on the bill and supports it.
An element that is sure to be the center of debate is the definition of what, exactly, constitutes an “unacceptable” rating or a determination of “low-performing.” Those words are key, since they would trigger the state intervention after two years for schools and after five for school boards. HB 338 does not tie them to any specific measure, such as standardized state tests.
The bill also revisits an older discussion about school accreditation. Currently, schools rely mostly on the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools for accreditation, a non-governmental organization. HB 338 would establish a committee to study the “advantages and disadvantages” of establishing a state accreditation process, “including the resources and structure that would be necessary and any impediments that would need to be addressed.”
What the bill proposes
• Would create a new position for a state official to oversee schools that are “unacceptable” and “low-performing” for more than two years.
• The Director of School Turnaround would track school performance and have authority to make changes in schools that fail to improve.
• The allowable interventions range from replacing school staff to taking over schools and handing them to a “successful” school district or to a private nonprofit.
• In school districts where at least half the schools have an “unacceptable rating” for at least five years, the governor could suspend school board members.
Contrasts to earlier Opportunity School District proposal
• The official responsible for making decisions about unacceptable schools would not answer directly to the governor, as was the case with the OSD, but to the state board of education, whose members the governor appoints.
• Amendment 1, the OSD proposal, also would have taken local tax dollars; the new proposal doesn’t do that.
• Amendment 1 would have allowed some schools to be turned over to for-profit managers to run; the new legislation specifies “nonprofit.”