From its beginnings in 1999, the modern education reform movement in Georgia recommended greater flexibility for schools.
At a national education summit in 1999, Georgia’s Gov. Roy Barnes joined two dozen other governors and the nation’s business leaders in pledging to give schools more freedom and control over their budgets.
A reform commission created by Barnes urged freeing Georgia schools from cumbersome local and state regulations, granting principals control over class sizes, budgets, schedules, hiring, and teacher evaluation – all the factors considered pivotal to remaking schools.
The rationale was schools could not improve without the ability to respond with urgency, agility and specificity to the needs of their particular students.
Everyone concurred: Schools should not be run out of Atlanta.
While he abandoned many of the Barnes-era reforms when he won election in 2002, Gov. Sonny Perdue continued to champion increased flexibility.
But here we are in 2015 still talking about giving schools more freedoms. I used to say the state prefers to give schools flexibility over money. I now realize the state and school districts themselves don’t yield control easily, no matter how much they advocate flexibility in the abstract.
Despite 16 years of discussion, school-based decision-making remains an aspiration rather than a reality in this state.
Yet, flexibility is the linchpin of Gov. Nathan Deal’s proposal to create a super district at the state level to seize control of failing schools and reinvigorate them with new leadership and direction.
Two recent discussions of Deal’s plan brought national experts on state takeovers to Atlanta. And they all had the same message: Without school-based control, the plan is doomed.
“What matters is how much flexibility schools actually have,” said Michael Brickman, national policy director of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.
Speaking Tuesday at an education conference sponsored by Voices for Georgia’s Children and the Georgia Partnership for Excellence in Education, Brickman said, “You have to make sure there is real autonomy. You can have these policies in place but, if you don’t give these schools the freedom to do what’s right for their students, you are not going to get the results you want.”
One of the models cited by Deal for his Opportunity District is Tennessee’s Achievement School District. Its chief operating officer Elliot Smalley also spoke Tuesday, saying, “Schools get better results when talented leaders and teachers have the power to make their own decisions because they know their schools best. This works better when it is from the ground up, not the top down.”
Earlier this month, Neerav Kingsland, former CEO of New Schools for New Orleans, told a legislative committee a key element of successful school reconstitution after Hurricane Katrina was, “Educators themselves running the schools. If students coming into school in September are behind in math, the principal doesn't need to go to districts for any changes to the existing math.”
If turning around struggling schools starts with flexibility, why doesn't the state extend flexibility to all schools? I've asked that question now for 16 years and still have never gotten a clear answer.
I do know this. At the same time the General Assembly touts school-based autonomy, it also attempts to micromanage schools, passing laws that control how much schools spend in the classroom, including the infamous 65 percent rule that did nothing but increase paperwork for Georgia schools.
In this session, legislative efforts seek to dictate how schools teach AP U.S. history and how they respond to students who want to use the bathroom.
The loud flush you hear is flexibility going down the drain.