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Georgia PTA: Opportunity School District doesn't engage parents; it circumvents them

Statement today from Georgia PTA president Lisa-Marie Haygood on Gov. Nathan Deal's recent comments on his state takeover plan, which voters will decide in November: 

Thank you for coming today.  I am Lisa-Marie Haygood, president of the Georgia PTA.  I am also a proud parent of two daughters who have been educated in the Cherokee County School System.  I have been a conservative my entire adult life.  I am joined by Otha Thornton, immediate past-president of the National PTA, and members of the Georgia PTA Board of Directors.  We represent a diverse group of Georgia parents: diverse geographically, economically, and politically.

We stand here today to speak up for the children, the parents, and the teachers in Georgia.  We stand here today to support public education, the 1.7 million students in public schools, and the educators who work every day to help our children succeed.  We stand here today, as parents, to voice our opposition to the state takeover of schools known euphemistically as the “Opportunity School District,” which will appear as a proposed amendment to Georgia’s Constitution this November.

PTA’s mission is to speak up and to stand up for every child - to make every child’s potential a reality by engaging and empowering families and communities to advocate for all children.  Our 250,000 members are contributing hundreds or thousands of hours in their schools and communities to improve children’s lives.  PTA supports laws, policies, and initiatives which will benefit children.  The members of the Georgia PTA do not believe AMENDMENT 1, known as the Opportunity School District, is in the best interests of children, and our delegates voted, unanimously, 633 - 0 at our summer convention to oppose Amendment 1.

We come reluctantly to this battle; the Georgia PTA does not wish to engage in the political squabbling that takes place under the Gold Dome.  However, we can no longer sit by while our children are used as political pawns for those who wish to privatize our public education system and in order to profit from it.

The members of the Georgia PTA do not represent special interest groups; we represent every school, every child, every parent, and every teacher in this state. The children do not have a voice so we must speak up for them.  We must speak up to advocate for every child, all 1.7 million, who are enrolled in public education.  We must speak up for the parents who want a say in their child’s education. We speak up for all those who want accountability in how their taxpayer dollars are spent.   Our board and our membership chose to fight the state takeover of our public schools, and unlike those who support Amendment 1 for financial gain, all we stand to gain is this battle is the opportunity to improve children’s lives.

Georgia PTA felt compelled to hold this press conference after recent comments by Gov. Deal at an Education Leadership Conference.  At that conference the governor attacked the many local boards of education who have exercised their right to speak out against his state school takeover plan.  He also praised school superintendents for “keeping their mouths shut” even if they didn’t agree with his plan.

We stand here today in support of those brave superintendents who have spoken out against a state takeover.  We stand in support of the brave school boards who have taken the initiative to pass resolutions condemning the proposed state takeover of schools.  We also speak out for the many school board members and Superintendents who have felt threatened or intimidated by Atlanta politicians looking to impose their political agenda on our public school system.

The school superintendents and school board members, teachers, and other educational leaders are the ones working with and for our children.  They work everyday to improve our schools for our children.  They should be brought into conversations at the state level, not be told to “keep their mouths shut” when they don’t agree with a flawed and opportunistic plan, or threatened with state takeover if they dare to speak out.

School takeover districts currently exist in three states; none have been successful. Louisiana and Tennessee have recently voted to end their programs and return state-run schools to the local districts.  We cannot support an expensive policy experiment that has continually failed children in other parts of the country, especially when our state Department of Education already has the tools to help schools.

Georgia PTA supports existing Georgia law OCGA 20-14-41 which permits the Georgia Department of Education to provide assistance to struggling schools deemed “focus” or “priority.”  These interventions are the same ones provided for in Amendment 1 but require a review by school boards and communities and establishes a clear appeals process to the State Board of Education.  The Department of Education has shown success in improving schools under this existing law, and Georgia PTA supports this PROVEN, successful method to assist our struggling schools.  Rather than endorsing an amendment which diminishes the power of our votes, eliminates accountability to taxpayers, increases the size of state government, and has failed in every other state where it has been attempted, the State of Georgia should charge and support our elected state superintendent of schools to fully leverage existing laws for intervention to aid struggling schools.

Where Amendment 1 goes beyond existing law 20-14-41 is the governor-appointed superintendent of OSD schools and school funding.  This political appointee would have the sole power to select the OSD schools from the list of struggling schools and determine the interventions prescribed for these OSD schools - including closure or turning over the school building to a charter school.  These powers would come without any oversight, as the superintendent would report directly to the governor.  Amendment 1 would also change the constitution of the state of Georgia to allow for local taxpayer money to be used for state charter schools, to transfer locally funded buildings and equipment to state charter schools, and to allow private management companies to charge a 3 percent “administration” fee to local districts for the privilege of taking over a school.

PTA engages parents and the larger community to support children.  Amendment 1 circumvents the parents, community, and local school board to implement the appointed superintendent’s plan.  This does not increase community involvement; it diminishes it.  We want parents to be an active, respected voice in their schools.  Amendment 1 could effectively silence parents.

The governor claims that thousands of Georgia’s children are “trapped” in schools that are failing. He has a very narrow definition of “failing,” however, that is based on the College and Career Readiness Index.  The CCRPI, in turn, is based primarily on standardized test scores.

The tests used for this measure are the Georgia Milestones, which have had so many issues over the past two years that many have called for the test scores to be thrown out, and the 2016 results were waived for promotion/retention requirements.  The weighting system given to achievement and growth is constantly in flux, leading to a ratings system that is constantly changing.  Schools are being graded by ever-changing formulas based on flawed tests.  Any teacher could explain why this is an inaccurate measure of our children, but sadly, teachers are not a part of this conversation.

Our schools are a reflection of the communities they serve.  We agree the schools on the potential takeover list are struggling, but Amendment 1 in NO WAY addresses the underlying cause of the struggles.  On average, standardized tests scores are simply a good indicator of household income - the higher the income, the higher the score.  Every school on the governor’s list has over 80 percent of its students living in poverty.  We need to look holistically at the issues impeding student achievement in these school communities, but Amendment 1 does not provide any increased levels of community support.

At a recent education conference, the governor stated that if opponents of his takeover plan really cared about our children, we would be fixing our schools instead of fighting his constitutional amendment.  This sentiment is incredibly insulting to the hundreds of thousands of hardworking parents who strive every day to ensure their children receive the best possible education: parents who work multiple jobs so their children will be able to eat; parents who take precious time off from work to attend parent-teacher conferences or to read to their child’s class; parents who will lose their voice because the appointed OSD Superintendent is not accountable to them and therefore does not have to listen. Opposing a Constitutional Amendment that would allow for a state takeover of our schools does not equate our support or acceptance of “failing” schools.  Our schools aren't failing; our schools and our students are being failed by a system that doesn’t provide the resources they need.

Even the governor admits that, in the decade since the Great Recession, Georgia has seen an 11% increase in graduation rates and increases in literacy scores.  Schools achieved these increases despite billions of dollars of austerity cuts to the state education budget and a 16% state increase in child poverty rates.  Failing?  No, our schools are ACHIEVING, despite a lack of full state funding!  They are accomplishing great things in the face of the harsh conditions of increased class sizes, reduced resources, fewer supports, ever-changing requirements, and more high-needs students.

Are there schools that need more assistance?  Yes, of course.  But we cannot continue to deny our schools needed funds and resources, to grade them on flawed data, and to call them failing.  We must not allow private education companies to come into our state and make a profit off of our children's backs - all the while offering a quick fix that doesn’t exist.

Even with all of our concerns with this amendment, the members of the Georgia PTA might not feel the need to be as vocal if the true intent of the bill were reflected in the language of the amendment.  This is a proposed amendment to the constitution of the state of Georgia, yet the wording is deliberately vague and deceptive.  Parental and community involvement is not increased or required by the enabling legislation, yet the preamble to the amendment proposes to “fix failing schools through increased community involvement.

If the governor and state legislators believe the best way to fix struggling schools is to put them under state control and to either close them or turn them over to charter schools, then let the language on the ballot reflect this initiative.  As it stands, the preamble, and indeed, the entire amendment question, is intentionally misleading and disguises the true intentions of the OSD legislation.

Gov. Deal, you said last week that instead of opposing you, we should be focusing on improving the schools - wow, that hurts! I am actually surprised at the audacity of such a statement. Did you know that Georgia PTA is an all-volunteer association?  We are in the schools, and we are making huge changes. I personally spend 60-plus hours a week traveling this state hundreds of miles working tirelessly to ensure every child has a chance at a quality education.

Look around, some of these board members have served this association for more than 20 years.  We make copies, serve healthy snacks, clean messes, fluff premises, we read, we cut, we serve.  We care enough to be in the classrooms for the parents that have to work extra jobs to keep food on the table, heat on in the house, clean clothes on their kids.  We represent the front line, and the one thing your legislation doesn’t address: help for the poverty that ravages their communities-and a chance to believe that they can do better.

Governor, I campaigned for you, contributed to your causes, and have tremendous respect for your family.  I personally think you have made very positive strides in the economic landscape of our state, and certainly your changes in Criminal Justice reform are to be applauded.  But this constitutional amendment is misguided and flawed. It does not in fact invite community involvement, but instead enables more back-room politics and allows for political “quid-pro-quo” to donors who contribute money to campaigns in exchange for the “opportunity” to run takeover charter schools and siphon our local taxes in order to earn a profit on the backs of our children.

While you may have no plans to engage in this type of political back-scratching, you will only be our governor for two more years - this is an amendment to our constitution that would allow ANY future governor to sell off our public schools.

Simply put, Amendment 1 takes control away from local communities and places it in the hands of appointed state bureaucrats and private interests.  Amendment 1 uses a flawed grading system to justify transferring local funds and buildings to state control.  Amendment 1 adds an additional layer of government bureaucracy to our school system. Georgia PTA does not believe Amendment 1 is in the best interest of improving children’s lives.  We will be at the ballot box Nov. 8 speaking for every child with one voice.






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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.