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Emotions run high on both sides of governor's bill to take over failing schools

In nearly three hours of testimony Wednesday afternoon on the governor’s proposal to appoint a fix-it czar to take control of failing schools, the House Education Committee heard many emotional pleas.

“My son came home from school the other day and said ‘Mom, I don’t feel like we are being prepared for college,’’’ said Kiely Clayton, whose son attends DeKalb's McNair High School, which scored an appalling 44.9 this year on the 100-point College and Career Ready Performance Index.

Under Gov. Nathan Deal’s proposal, schools would be eligible for absorption into a state Opportunity School District if they score below 60 three years running. The expansion of state authority and the installation of a special superintendent to run these schools require voters to pass a constitutional amendment.

Clayton is willing to cede that power to the state, explaining, “These kids are our future, and if we don’t stop now and take time out for them, they are going to be on the corner selling drugs. This constitutional amendment won’t help my child, but it will help children in my neighborhood. Right now, McNair is at the bottom. We need help. I didn't particularly vote for the governor, but I applaud him for this.”

In contrast, Lisa Morgan, a teacher at DeKalb’s Midway Elementary, also eligible for takeover, spoke in opposition to Deal’s Opportunity District.

“These are my babies you are discussing today,’’ Morgan said. “I do everything I can for my students. Unfortunately, my students don’t stay at Midway. This year, we have 95 fifth graders. I taught only one of these students in kindergarten six years ago. These problems are not going to be solved by the governor appointing a superintendent. Please don’t add another bureaucrat telling me what I need to do for my babies. I know what they need, and I can tell you by name. I am doing what I can. I need resources and help from others as committed as I am to do that.”

So, who is right? Disheartened mother or dismayed teacher?

They both are. McNair needs help. So do teachers in schools challenged with transitory students and children with learning deficits.

The question for the House Education Committee — which votes on the Deal bill Monday — is whether students or teachers will be helped by a state seizure of schools.

Among the questions to consider:

•Does Deal's bill deliver more administration where instruction is needed?

•Does it make sense to approve a major shift in education control when Georgia districts face a June deadline to choose a new model of governance?

•The governor's own 33-member ed reform commission is only in its second month of exploring how best to fund schools. Should we wait for its August report?

Historically, state takeovers have not dramatically transformed schools. The experiments underway in New Orleans and Memphis are yielding small improvements, but the schools in the state portfolios are still under performing.

In those places, most failing schools have been recast as charter schools, which would also occur under Deal's plan. Several speakers advised the House to follow the lead of Tennessee, which prohibits for-profit charter management companies. A few weeks ago, New Orleans officials told a joint House-Senate committee the most successful schools in their state recovery district were started by local educators, the weakest were those overseen by the for-profits.

DeKalb Superintendent Michael Thurmond told lawmakers many schools deemed "persistently failing" by the state are making strides. He said 44 DeKalb schools earned less than 60 on the College and Career Ready Performance Index in 2011; two years later the number fell to 25.

"That is growth and that is improvement," he said. "And we didn't have to pass a constitutional amendment. What we did was hire dedicated teachers and principals who are out there working."


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About the Author

Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.