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Former Tennessee teacher on state takeover plan: Don't do it. Kids and schools lose.

In a letter to lawmakers, a Georgian who taught in Tennessee shares her unhappy experiences with the state takeover model there.

Gov. Nathan Deal is proposing a Georgia takeover program modeled after the New Orleans Recovery School District and the Tennessee Achievement School District. The House Education Committee will vote on the governor's proposal Monday.

Garner's letter to lawmakers may earn a bit more attention than other teacher missives; her father is Wayne Garner, a former legislator who headed the prison system in the 1990s and is now mayor of Carrollton.

Dear Mr. Speaker,

I sent the following letter to the members of the House Education Committee and to Gov. Nathan Deal. I also wanted to share my experiences and concern for the students in our state with you.

As a native Georgian, I am always proud to call Georgia home. From May of 2007 until January of 2015, I resided in Tennessee, with the constant desire to return to my beloved Georgia when the time arose.

From September of 2011 through December 2014, I taught in an inner-city school with a free and reduced lunch population of 98 percent. For three years, I poured my heart, soul, bank account, and time into teaching my students how to think, how to reason, and how to believe in themselves, in hopes that even one could escape the grip of generational poverty.

During my tenure in Nashville, I saw the effects of the Achievement School District at my school. Students in our zone were granted admission to many of the ASD charter schools, but when their behavior and learning progress was not up to the standards of the ASD, they returned to us. The funding that was transferred from the traditional public schools to the ASD for those students, however, was not.

In addition to the transient nature of our population due to the charter schools and the nature of poverty, teachers were told to teach one set of standards while students were assessed over another set of standards. This caused a drop in our achievement, which meant more opportunities for ASD to take over.

This led to the most tumultuous four months of my professional education career, and one of the most tumultuous times of my life — a life that has included childhood cancer and a sudden loss of a sibling five years ago. So, please know that when I say those months were miserable, I do not say so lightly.

While our school made gains even though our students were not tested over the material we were instructed to give them, the growth was not fast enough. Not only was the test reliability not taken into account, neither were the everyday struggles of teaching in poverty.

Each day, teachers in low-income schools have almost insurmountable odds to overcome when teaching their children. Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs tells us that a person’s self-actualization goals (like learning) cannot be met unless their physical and emotional needs are met. Teachers in poverty spend much time and many resources feeding their children, helping their children learn to socialize safely, and making sure their students feel safe.

Once that is done, then the learning can begin. Unfortunately, students in poverty also come to school with huge deficits in vocabulary. Hart & Risley (1995) have found that children from lower SES children are exposed to one-third of the verbiage and vocabulary that children from higher SES families are exposed to. Even more studies have shown that children who are behind in vocabulary acquisition in first grade have difficulty closing the gap between themselves and students from higher income families. Each year, the gap widens and becomes harder to close.

As you know, vocabulary development and knowledge is paramount in every subject. With Common Core, it is even more crucial for students to understand the meaning of word parts such as roots, prefixes, and suffixes in order to comprehend the complex texts that we require them to work with.

If the ASD had been widely successful in Tennessee, then I would not feel so compelled to send you this plea. Tennessee has recently discovered that the ASD has mismanaged funds . The ASD is now seeking to recruit higher achieving students from lower-income schools to come to their schools to help increase their achievement data.

Where does it stop? Where is the place for traditional schools? Many of the charter schools I have visited treat students like pieces of data. They are not interested in helping the whole child succeed and develop. They are interested in producing numbers to keep money flowing.

In January of this year, I returned to Georgia and took a teaching position with a different population than I served in Tennessee. The fight to keep my school open for our students had worn me down. My love and compassion and desire to work with my students in Nashville did not die, in fact, I still ache to be with them.

However, I am in much debt over my master’s degree I attained after my first career. I opted out of the alternative routes to certification that many charter school teachers are a product of because I wanted to be sure that I understood the foundations and pedagogy of education. I have amassed student loan debt and debt from student teaching. Combining that with the hopelessness the ASD left to me and my colleagues made me think that I did not actually like teaching.

I have been teaching in Georgia for about six weeks now. After the first week, I realized that I do love teaching. I love facilitating learning for many learning styles and differentiating for my students. I even love Common Core.

These last few weeks have been an incredible respite and time for me to recharge and refocus my passion for bettering the lives of young people. To hear that my beloved state might be heading down the slippery slope of an Opportunity School District crushes me. I fear we will find ourselves in the same boat as Tennessee.

When we reallocate our resources away from traditional schools, our schools will fail. Then, students will be rezoned for other schools. If the real issue, which is generational poverty, is not addressed, then it’s a long chain that will eventually lead to Georgia’s education system changing over to the hands of corporations and business people who are not experienced in the philosophy and best practices in education. We will drive away passionate and talented teachers who only want to see every student succeed.

Thank you for taking the time to read this letter, and thank you for the sacrifices you make to serve our state. Your job is not easy, and I know the strain it puts on your family and your emotions. You are appreciated.


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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.