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Failure and the success of Nathan Deal’s school-rescue measure

Success can be found in failure. Our governor proved it Wednesday.

In their tinkering with Nathan Deal’s proposal to award himself the power to take over problem schools, House lawmakers employed some niceties to ease hard feelings.

In the nitty-gritty legislation, the phrase “failing schools” was often changed to “qualifying schools” – as in, “qualified to be taken over.”

But the governor’s people refused to budge on removal of the F-word from the place that it mattered most – a proposed constitutional amendment that would ask voters to give the governor the power “to intervene in chronically failing public schools in order to improve student performance.”

“Fail” is a stark word. A word that demands action. And on Wednesday, it was powerful enough to crack the House Democratic caucus and give Deal his biggest victory in four-plus years as governor.

Eleven of 60 Democrats voted for Senate Resolution 287, enough to replace a handful of Republicans made nervous by the expansion of executive authority. The measure reached the required two-thirds majority with a single vote to spare.

A day earlier, House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams, D-Atlanta, had listed her caucus’ objections to Deal’s proposal. For one, it contains no prohibition on the use of private companies to handle problem schools.

But negotiations had also yielded some improvements, she said, including safeguards to prevent governor-appointed school administrators from simply suspending or expelling students to improve test scores.

And yet the caucus leader said she didn’t expect all Democrats to oppose the measure. “We will have members who will vote for the bill,” Abrams predicted. In the end, she may have been more prescient than she wanted to be.

Deal’s proposal reflects his belief that school failures are often the result of political malfeasance. In Wednesday’s debate, supporters were forthright about the need to bring some school boards to heel.

“There are some districts with failing schools that simply refuse to use the tools we’ve given them. The elected leaders or appointed superintendents in those districts have remained recalcitrant, refusing to consider any of the innovative options that have been made available to them,” said state Rep. Christian Coomer, R-Cartersville, who presented the governor’s measure. “This legislation will act as a challenge to local boards.”

For House Democrats, the problem is that these failing schools are filled with African-American students they represent. And school board behavior, they argued, is hardly the root of the problem.

“We all know that all across this state there are children who live in poverty who look like me. These are the children we are talking about. They’re in the schools that we’re talking about,” said state Rep. Carolyn Hugley, D-Columbus.

Hugley spoke of arms twisted by the governor, but she was also the first to bring up the failure-laden question that will be put to voters in November 2016. “If my mother read this — and God rest her soul, she would not know what we’re talking about,” Hugley said.

State Rep. “Able” Mable Thomas, D-Atlanta, pursued the point. “The question is like baseball and apple pie,” she said. “Who would vote no? It makes us feel good. It makes us feel like we’re doing something.”

That’s the power of failure. It demands that something – anything – be done to correct it. Doing nothing isn’t an option. Democrats who voted for the governor’s school-rescue plan were white and black, rural and urban. But none were more significant than state Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver of DeKalb County.

Six members of that county’s school board were removed in 2013 when the school district’s accreditation was threatened.

“Our efforts of reform in DeKalb have been extremely mixed,” Oliver said. “We’ve had five superintendents in the last 15 years. A troubled record.”

In declaring her support, Oliver acknowledged that Deal has gambled by taking personal responsibility for educational performance in a state with an “extremely high” rate of child poverty.

The Decatur lawmaker also pointed out that the label of “failure” can be transferable.

“I believe [the governor] will take this risk knowing he has to win it,” she said. “We in our local system do not have the money. The governor is going to have to spend money.”

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