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Rift opens between governor, superintendent over Georgia schools plan

A testy exchange between Gov. Nathan Deal and state Superintendent Richard Woods reveals a rift between them in Georgia’s debate about failing schools.

The dispute between the two Republicans is about who should command a school turnaround initiative working its way through the General Assembly. Woods’ duty as an elected official is to oversee the Department of Education and its K-12 mission, and he argues he and his staff of career educators should be in charge. But Deal has made fixing low-performing schools a top priority. Governors are often judged by the success of public schools, so control over education is important to him.

This disagreement highlights a tug of war over educational turf that started before either man took office. Whoever winds up in charge of this new educational ground will determine which schools get targeted for state intervention. The education initiative is attracting bi-partisan support, though the details in House Bill 338 are still being hammered out.

“We’re talking about the education of our children,” said Rep. Stacey Abrams, the Atlanta Democratic leader, as she threw her support behind the Republican-driven turnaround proposal in early March.

Voters overwhelmingly rejected Deal’s bid in 2016 to take over failing schools through a constitutional amendment. But he is back, cheering from the sidelines if not actually on the field, as lawmakers follow his failed Opportunity School District referendum with a new, more collaborative proposal. It would, for the first time, move some schools directly into the governor’s sphere of influence. The bill’s author, Rep. Kevin Tanner, R-Dawsonville, said he consulted with Deal in crafting the proposal and that Deal has pledged to provide funding. In exchange, Tanner has committed to putting the school turnaround staff in the governor’s chain of command. A “Chief Turnaround Officer” would report to the state Board of Education, whose members are appointed by the governor. Deal must have enough confidence in the turnaround leadership to provide more money, Tanner said.

Woods has pushed back, arguing that he and his staff of hundreds should be at the center of any school turnaround effort.

His public calls to have the turnaround chief report to him provoked the governor. Deal reproached the superintendent in a Feb. 28 letter obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution using the state Open Records Act.

The governor wrote that the number of “chronically failing” schools has increased since Woods took office in 2015, and asked him what he’s done “to reverse this downward spiral of failure?”

Charles Bullock, a veteran observer of Georgia politics, said a rebuke like that is rare among top elected officials.

“That’s pretty strongly-worded,” said Bullock, a political science professor at the University of Georgia. “That’s saying you’re not doing your job.”

Deal is not the first governor to seek more authority over schools; governors from both parties have seized educational turf from past superintendents.

Gov. Roy Barnes, a Democrat, started the Governor’s Office of Student Achievement when Linda Schrenko, a Republican, was state superintendent. The agency, originally named the Office of Education Accountability, got significant public exposure under Barnes’ successor, Republican Sonny Perdue, when it participated in an investigation of test cheating in Atlanta schools, after The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported unlikely spikes in test scores. It now has a $20 million budget, at least eight times what it was at the end Barnes’ administration, and it has moved into areas that were the domain of the education department. It helps pick the “indicators” used to produce the department’s annual schools report card, and it recently unveiled a second, simpler report card that assigns schools and districts a grade from “A” to “F.”

Michael O’Sullivan, who runs Georgia CAN, a nonprofit that lobbies to hold schools to a tougher standard, said the governor’s education office has brought needed transparency. The superintendent’s education department produces “reams of data,” but it’s complicated and hard to find, he said. “If you can’t make sense of it, and you don’t even know where to find it, what good is that?”

Much of the Governors Office of Student Achievement’s expanded powers have come under Deal, who sparred with Woods’ predecessor, John Barge, also a Republican. Barge unsuccessfully challenged Deal in the 2014 gubernatorial primary, campaigning on increased state funding for schools.

Woods, until now, had a publicly cordial relationship with the governor. But he is openly defiant on the school turnaround issue and defending himself against Deal’s implicit criticism of inadequacy, writing that he needs more than two years — and more money from the governor — to improve schools.

“The numbers show that we’ve had success in improving schools but have been held back,” he wrote, “due to budgetary constraints.” Woods said he has 52 staffers in 242 low-performing schools. They’re stretched thin, able to visit each school only one or two days a week, given the “limited resources” allocated to his agency.

His call for more money crosses a fault line for Deal, who has been accused of shorting schools in the state budget. He has not fully funded them according to the state education funding formula, but he has added back hundreds of millions of dollars to school budgets since the Great Recession. Meanwhile, Deal has become a crusader against an educational “status quo” that he accuses of neglecting failing schools.

Advocates for the schools counter that poverty is to blame: The schools aren’t failing; the children struggle because of problems even the best teachers and administrators cannot solve, such as poor nutrition, inadequate medical care or parents who cannot afford or do not understand the value of books. Poor children typically start school far behind their middle class peers and never catch up.

The two men also differ over what, exactly, a failing school is. Only about half the 153 schools on the governor’s “chronically failing” list are on an education department list of low performers based on federal criteria. In essence, the education department and the governor’s office use different yardsticks to measure schools.

Such fundamental differences raise questions about how well either side could collaborate with a turnaround chief who reports to the other.

Even without such political distractions, the way the author of HB 338 describes the job makes it sound like a task for Sisyphus.

When asked at a recent hearing whether he’d considered a time limit for the state’s turnaround effort, Rep. Tanner’s answer was not encouraging, and it suggested the turnaround chief’s role will outlive the terms of several governors and superintendents: “This is not a short-term endeavor,” he said. “Twenty years from now, we’re still going to have chronically failing schools. That’s just a reality.”

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