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New school oversight bill grades as incomplete

Georgia lawmakers must ensure any ‘Plan B’ to boost low-quality schools doesn’t waste money or fuel bureaucratic clashes.

House Bill 338 creates a new, high-level education leader — a chief turnaround officer or CTO — tasked with improving Georgia’s lowest performing schools. Unlike Gov. Nathan Deal’s Opportunity School District, which voters rejected in November as a power grab, the CTO doesn’t kick down the door to school districts to force help and guidance but knocks first.

As a result, the Republican-driven bill hasn’t roused as much opposition, even winning the support of some key Democrats for its acknowledgement of the deep influence of poverty on school performance. That doesn’t mean HB 338 is a particularly good bill or a sure route to better schools.

The bill lacks any defined funding source, a flaw given the strategies required to boost performance in high-poverty schools — tutoring, after-school programs, longer school days and summer enrichment — are expensive.

While the bill details a range of reforms the CTO is empowered to enact, it’s fuzzy on the processes for achieving them. Six of the 18 pages of the bill lay out the CTO’s role, scope of power and responsibilities. Among them: Identify schools that need her or his help, hire and dispatch turnaround coaches to such schools, negotiate the role of the local school board and determine more dramatic interventions if the school fails to improve.

The legislation vests a lot of control in the CTO. But the savior strategy often fails because the fate of a school can’t hinge on the vision, drive and abilities of a single leader who may not be there tomorrow.

Stephen D. Dolinger, president of the Georgia Partnership for Excellence in Education, cautioned that reforms can grind to a halt in districts when a superintendent departs. “It would be important that the CTO put the processes in place and have the team and infrastructure in place so if he or she leaves, the work won’t stop,” he said.

The bill envisions a team of turnaround coaches in schools, but doesn’t clarify whether a coach will be focused on only one school. (The bill states: “Turnaround coaches shall be assigned to one or more schools.”) The coaches are the linchpins because they’re on the ground in the schoolhouse, developing relationships with the staff and the community.

No mention is made of the salaries of the CTO or the coaches, who are expected to not only remedy the academic challenges in a school but “create local collaborations to address personal and community conditions,” including poverty, economic development, safety, transportation for parents and students, adult education, wellness, and mental health services.

Resources are paramount to turning around schools, as State Superintendent Richard Woods has told the Legislature. Fifty-two DOE staff members are already working with 242 struggling Georgia schools, but funding has limited their reach. “The numbers show that we’ve had success in improving schools but have been held back due to budgetary constraints,” said Woods.

For HB 338 to succeed, education experts agree DOE must partner with the CTO office and share expertise, but that relationship could be rocky. Terse exchanges between Deal and Woods reveal a chasm over chain of command. Woods wants the CTO to report to him. Deal insists the CTO answer to his appointees on the state Board of Education, castigating Woods for failing to reverse the number of failing schools and challenging what the school chief has accomplished to “reverse this downward spiral of failure?”

So, we have an alienated elected superintendent with no constitutional obligation to partner with the appointed CTO and now less motivation to do so. And we have a demoralized DOE staff since the governor has cast the CTO as a rebuke of their performance.

Dolinger and other education advocates believe the governor and the superintendent can mend their rift so the CTO is not at odds with DOE. “Let us not waste taxpayer money,” he said. “Let these two organizations work together.”

To succeed, the CTO model has to have the cooperation and collaboration of DOE. It requires adequate funding and leaders strong enough to build an organization that can survive their departure.

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