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If Georgia voters reject Opportunity School District today, here's why

The conventional wisdom among Georgia political sages: The Opportunity School District will not pass today on the basis of the strong opposition in metro Atlanta.

Why would the OSD -- which will affect only a few districts -- collapse and the more far-reaching 2012 charter schools amendment pass?

What's the main difference this time? In a word, money.

About $5 million will be spent making a case to the public against the OSD. Apparently, that investment in advertising has increased public awareness and mistrust of a state takeover of schools. The pro side is also spending millions, but its targeted advertising does not appear to have been as effective.

That brings me to my own theory. This presidential election has put voters in a foul mood. People are fed up with government in general so they're wary of extending government reach, which the OSD amendment would do by empowering the state to seize control of local schools and local tax dollars. Voters are not receptive to the promises by state senators in the TV spots that the state will help kids.

Here is a piece by former Atlanta teacher Aaron Sayler that summarizes the reasons the OSD may falter. A Georgia Tech graduate, Sayler spent 10 years teaching in Atlanta Public Schools and now works in software development.

By Aaron Sayler

Some proponents of Amendment 1, the Opportunity School District, are saying most of us don’t need to worry about our schools and that only a small fraction of the state’s schools will be affected. But this doesn’t address the legitimate concerns people have about what the amendment would entail. First, the scores and tests used to determine which schools are failing could be changed at any time, and as they are not very well defined already, we have very little idea of what is actually being measured. Second, if we are worried about our schools we should also be worried about the schools of children with less means. We should perhaps give this even closer consideration if it is being sold as something we are doing to other people and not to ourselves.

Combining this with some of the governor’s recent mailers and speeches, it seems that he is trying to tell us that the amendment will only be used in inner-city or predominantly African-American schools. While we hope, as Kasim Reed said, that the governor has in his heart the best intention for helping our children, I do not agree with the means being proposed or with how the message is being delivered, especially when it comes to using fear to sell policy. At best, it sounds like a degree of state-level paternalism, and, even unintentionally stoking racial tensions at our point in history in particular is not a helpful undertaking.

The supporters of the amendment say that we can trust the governor and that he only wants to do what is best for the disadvantaged. But, ratifying this constitutional amendment means we must not only trust the governor but also the unnamed person who will run the district, the legislature to refrain from making any changes to the underlying laws governing the district, and all future governors and appointees for as long as this amendment remains part of our constitution. That is a level of foresight that we can’t have at this point, and it seems that a less sweeping change may give the rest of us more discretion rather than concentrating so much power in so few people.

While the accompanying legislation says the new superintendent will solicit feedback from the parents and community of the affected schools, there is nothing about that feedback that is binding. He will then have full discretion to make changes as he sees fit. This could be a good thing if he has only the best intentions as well as perfect wisdom and a path of execution for his plans.

But, none of those are guaranteed. In addition, it is important for him to have the support of the school community to implement the changes. He will have the power to remove a school’s entire staff and hire replacements. This may allow him to fill the positions with those favorable to his changes, but it will also drastically alter the culture of a school. The teachers who knew the habits and personalities of their students will be gone and the relationships will have to be rebuilt from the start. This is also ignoring the fact that school boards, teachers, and parents as represented by the state PTA have opposed the measure. With such significant opposition from such important stakeholders, it is hard to see how the governor will build the support he needs from the communities for his changes to see an effective implementation.

Another large question is the fact that we don’t know what that implementation will be. The legislation is very specific about who will be in charge and how the funds will be diverted, but it provides us no clue as to how these changes will improve the school. Proponents say that we cannot put up with the status quo, but change can alter things for the better or the worse. In this case, we have so little detail about the changes that we simply cannot say what will happen. There is no mention of increased resources for underprivileged schools, of different teaching strategies that will be implemented, or of increased community involvement which can have a very big impact in distressed neighborhoods.

The best that we can tell from discussions by both proponents and opponents is that the most likely course is to give control of the schools to out-of-state charter organizations. There are some organized, well-run charter groups, but there are also some that are less prepared. The Opportunity School District is modeled after a program in Tennessee that has not yet seen the success it has promised.

If the new district resembles the Tennessee program, we will see a patchwork of schools given to a variety of charter groups, some of which may improve things others which may make things worse. The results from Tennessee do not give us much hope of seeing the exciting transformations being promised by the amendment’s proponents.

The governor has also sold the amendment as a way to increase community involvement and local control, which is something difficult to understand. He has painted local school boards as a monopoly with no interest in improving the educational opportunities of their students. It seems that the real concentration of power would be in the newly appointed superintendent who is answerable only to the governor who is answerable only to the voters, the majority of whom will have no stake and no knowledge of what is being done to the schools in this new district.

Local control is very evident in our current system of school boards, where the elected officials have a single task – to run the local school system. They are elected directly by the voters, parents, and resident teachers in the school district who also have the best knowledge of how the schools are being run. They have control over how funds are spent and what improvements are made. And there are over 180 different boards, each making a decision on what is best for their schools.

Under the new district, the superintendent will manage schools from across the state and will find it hard to have a grasp on the intricacies of each local community he is responsible for. If the parents and students are unhappy with the direction he is taking them, they cannot vote out the board responsible for hiring him; only the governor can make a change in that position. The parents and local board will also no longer have control over the funding to be used for that school. It is true that some improvements in how some school fund are used can be made, but denying the community any agency in that decision and taking the responsibility of using their resources away from them does not seem like the best approach.

These are all reasons why prominent and vocal Republicans and Democrats have all come out against this measure. This does not suit the limited government tendencies of conservatives or appear to advance the liberal desire to care for the disadvantaged. Again, while we hope the governor has the best intentions, it has the appearance of taking away control from local officials so that he can do what he thinks will work.

One final argument of the amendments proponents is that even if a school is never taken over, it will provide a motivation for schools to improve themselves out of the fear that this may happen. First, the fact that a takeover is described as a thing to be feared shows that it may not necessarily be a good thing. And secondly, while fear can sometimes provide a limited motivation, it is not typically the best way of getting things done.

As a former teacher, I can say that there is only so much a single teacher can do in a single school year. Likewise, a school board that has seen drastic cuts in funding and must serve students who come in with a deficit of learning or who have special needs can only work with the resources they have. Fear of a school takeover may motivate some to improve their efforts, but I think it is more likely to motivate good teachers to seek out better schools that are not in danger of intervention, or to look for different jobs entirely. We have tried fear-based education with No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top, and what we have seen is a narrowing of the curriculum, an undue focus on testing, and even more limited options for struggling students and schools.

We do want to improve education for our children, but we need to think through the changes we are making and not simply make them for the sake of change.





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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.