Andy Young, Hank Aaron oppose Opportunity School District

Georgia’s proposed Opportunity School District got new opposition Tuesday as former Atlanta Mayor and United Nations Ambassador Andrew Young and baseball great Hank Aaron held a news conference to urge people to vote against Amendment 1.

Constitutional Amendment 1 on the Nov. 8 ballott would allow Governor Nathan Deal to establish a new statewide school district with authority to take over schools deemed to be “chronically failing,” and to appoint its superintendent. The change would also give the new district control over spending the local tax dollars for those schools.

African-American voters widely supported a constitutional amendment four years ago to authorize the state to establish charter schools. Backers of this new amendment are counting on similar support, and opposition from such revered black icons could prove consequential.

The opportunity school district has become a hot political issue, attracting opposition and millions of out-of-state dollars to fund media campaigns.

The Opportunity district, if approved, would empower the state to close schools, remove the staff and run them directly or convert them to state charter schools. Most schools on the list are high-poverty with large minority enrollments.

Young criticized the proposal as an outgrowth of federal intervention in schools which he said has been shifting money from impoverished students to testing companies in an “economic ripoff.” The Opportunity district legislation allows the state to convert public schools into charter schools managed by for-profit companies, he noted.

Deal’s administration came up with the idea and got two-thirds of the General Assembly to vote for it last year. He says local school boards have allowed schools to fail for generations, locking children into a cycle of poverty and joblessness and that it’s time to try something new.

There are about 68,000 children in chronically failing schools across Georgia. The determination is based on several years of scores from a school report card by the state Department of Education, and on minimum passing scores as set by the Governor’s Office of Student Achievement. Any school scoring lower than 60 over three years on the 110-point report card is eligible for takeover.

Young, 84, attributed failure in schools to a lack of funding for education. “I’d say that they took the money from us a generation ago,” he said.

Georgia schools took a significant hit in state money during the recession, though the cutbacks started half a decade earlier. Deal restored millions as the economy improved, but education funding remains below the level required under state’s education funding formula.

Aaron recounted an anecdote from his youth in Alabama, where an English teacher worked with him after school. He’d pick nuts from her pecan trees, and she’d give him lessons. He said he often muses how different his life might have been without that informal intervention. “Where would you be today if it wasn’t for that school teacher?”

Last week, supporters of the Opportunity district held an event of their own — a conference call with education leaders in Louisiana and Tennessee, where similar state takeovers have occured. Memphis parent Marquita Finnie was on the line. She said she was suspicious at first but said school leaders convinced children in failing schools that they could go to college. “You can’t label kids as bad,” she said. “You’ve got to have a strong leader and parents will follow.”

The Tennessee Achievement School District has gotten high marks from parents, yet research has revealed negligible overall gains and found that the state district trailed local school districts at turning around failing schools. That statewide district and a separate, competing “Innovation Zone” of schools run by local districts benefitted from half a billion dollars in federal grants, which Georgia does not have.

You can check your school’s test scores, graduation rates and other critical information in the Ultimate Atlanta School Guide.

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