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Five lessons from other states that shaped Opportunity School District

State Rep. Christian Coomer, R-Cartersville, shares the lessons he learned from state takeover programs in other states and how those lessons have shaped the Opportunity School District.

By Rep. Christian Coomer

There are now 68,000 Georgia students who attend the 127 schools that have received a failing grade for three consecutive years. Many of these schools have been struggling for decades.

As a legislator, I agree with Gov. Nathan Deal we cannot continue to sit idly by and watch schools fail their students year after year. A great education gives young people the opportunity for a prosperous and fulfilling life. We want this and need this not only for all of Georgia’s children but also for the future of our state.

In developing a plan to address our state’s lowest performing schools, we looked at reforms adopted in other states to learn what worked and what didn’t work. Building on their experience, we designed a unique system that works specifically for Georgia.

I joined Gov. Deal and a bipartisan group of legislators on a fact-finding mission to Louisiana to study its Recovery School District. Others traveled to Tennessee to review the Achievement School District program. These are some of the key points we took away from our investigations.

1. Focus only on the lowest performing schools:

Some states have the authority to assume control of an entire school district.  We never considered that to be a proposal worth considering.  Instead, the model provided by Louisiana and Tennessee showed much more promise for our state.  In this model, the state creates a single school district for the task of temporarily intervening in and turning around the state’s lowest performing schools.  This allows the district to have a lean operation, specializing in the sole task of turning around schools.

2. Empower parents, community members and educators:

Far too often a sense of urgency around improving schools has resulted in parents and community members being left out of the process.  The OSD law requires that input will be sought from these key stakeholders at every step of the process. If schools are converted to charters schools, they will be governed by a nonprofit governing board made up of community members, pushing control of those schools to the most local level possible. The majority of any school council created under the OSD must be composed of family members of children in that school.

Likewise, we heard from numerous educators who taught both before and after their school switched districts. These educators spoke of the need to be in a supportive environment where teachers are encouraged to lead and innovate. We’ve designed the law with the goal of retaining and attracting the best teachers to these schools with the highest need, and, in a model where the school principal is truly running the school, empower each of them to work together to drive improvements.

3. Provide traditional districts the tools to innovate:

In Tennessee, the Achievement School District has shown good progress but the work of the schools in the Shelby County School District Innovation Zone has outpaced most of the rest of the state. We spoke to numerous local leaders who credit both the ASD for being a catalyst for change and Shelby County for stepping up to improve their underperforming schools. They are giving credit to the “collaboration and competition” between the two entities for these gains. Through the Charter System and Strategic Waiver School System laws, local districts in Georgia already have the flexibility given to districts in Tennessee through their ASD reform model and school boards with OSD-eligible schools have already shown a willingness to take far bolder action than ever before to turn around the chronically failing schools in their districts with just the threat of the state having the ability to step in. Our hope is that the reforms they’ve put in place will be successful and the state won’t need to intervene in those schools.

4. Have a clear exit strategy out of the OSD:

Louisiana spent the past few years wrestling with the issue of how to effectively exit schools from the Recovery School District and return them to local control. Earlier this spring, after 11 years, the Louisiana Legislature worked with leaders of the RSD, local school district officials and school leaders to chart a clear path for returning the schools to the oversight of the local school board. Georgia’s law specifies that the OSD should begin looking to return a school after five years, cannot oversee a school for more than 10 years, and, if a school goes three consecutive years receiving a non-failing grade, it will automatically exit the OSD.

To us, this was one of the most important takeaways from those who have gone before us. How you define success determines the structure of the office and the motivation behind it. Tennessee has a goal which they say is admittedly a reach but it's what they aim for -- to consistently move schools from the bottom 5 percent to the top 25 percent. For us in Georgia, the goal is clear. We aim to ensure there are no children forced to attend a chronically failing school. Success is the achievement of that goal.

The Opportunity School District encourages school districts to act, and as Gov. Deal and my colleagues in the Legislature have routinely stated, we are rooting for every district to succeed in turning around their perpetually underperforming schools. If a school district can achieve that goal, that is the best-case scenario, but if it continues to fail its students, that's where the Opportunity School District will step in to get it back on track.

5. Finally, define success.

Success is not "how many schools can be in the OSD." Success is when there are no schools eligible for the OSD because there are no chronically failing schools in the state, a goal that every Georgian should be aiming for.

This is not a silver bullet that will solve every problem in every school, but it will help resolve some of the chronic failures in some of the most severely underperforming schools in Georgia. The families living in the attendance zones of failing schools have asked the state to help — they came in droves to our committee meetings asking the General Assembly to place this amendment on the ballot.

I believe the people of Georgia have the foresight and the resolve to make this solution available for those children who have been stuck in failing schools.


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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.