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House Ed Committee approves school takeover bill. Can it pass full House at higher bar?

Update at 4:44: After a lot of discussion of  "failing" vs. "chronically failing," the House Education Committee today passed Gov. Deal's two-part legislative package to empower the state to take control of failing schools. The bill now moves to the full House.

SR 287 and SB 133 are the enabling legislation for a state  "Opportunity School District" freighted with the authority to seize control of schools deemed to be chronically failing. The state would be able remove principals, transfer teachers, change what students are learning and control the schools' budgets.

The Governor's Office estimates about 140 schools would be eligible, including more than 60 in the metro area.

SR 287 amends the Georgia Constitution, so it requires a higher bar to pass the General Assembly,  a two-thirds majority in each chamber. The resolution won passage in the Senate. Now, we will see if the measure can do so in the House.

During the House Ed meeting today, proponents sought to strike a delicate balance, not wanting to denigrate schools even while declaring them incapable of reform.

House Ed Chair Brooks Coleman, R-Duluth, said he saw mostly good schools when he toured the state with other lawmakers. “But we saw some that just won’t change. This gives us a chance to take those schools and get them out. If we give them the opportunity to improve, I honestly believe 75 to 85 percent will do it. But for those that don't, let’s help the children get out.”

On hand at the meeting was Speaker Pro Tem Jan Jones, R-Milton, who did not like the protracted discussion on whether the term “failing schools” in the legislation unfairly labeled schools.

“Don’t pretty it so much that it is not clear to voters we are talking about schools in desperate need of intervention,” said Jones.  “There are not euphemisms for students who fail to graduate. It's called a very poor future.”

Back to original blog:

I am not sure this morning’s rally by the Georgia Association of Educators and the Georgia PTA in opposition to Senate Resolution 287 and Senate Bill 133, which would lay the groundwork for Gov. Nathan Deal’s “Opportunity School District,” will make any difference to this afternoon's vote in House Education.

In the heat of battle over a prized piece of legislation, the Legislature doesn’t pay much heed to organized education groups, whether parent or teacher. And that’s true no matter which political party controls the Legislature.

Deal is dedicated to passage of this proposal, seeing it as his signature education legislation and his legacy to Georgia's student. He says:

While Georgia boasts many schools that achieve academic excellence every year, we still have too many schools where students have little hope of attaining the skills they need to succeed in the workforce or in higher education.

We have a moral duty to do everything we can to help these children. Failing schools keep the cycle of poverty spinning from one generation to the next.

Education provides the only chance for breaking that cycle. When we talk about helping failing schools, we’re talking about rescuing children.

I stand firm on the principle that every child can learn, and I stand equally firm in the belief that the status quo isn’t working.

The House Education Committee is scheduled to vote at 3 p.m.

Here is a piece in opposition by the Rev. Frank Brown, president of Concerned Black Clergy of Metropolitan Atlanta, and Verdaillia Turner, president of the Georgia Federation of Teachers

By Rev. Frank Brown and Verdaillia Turner

Over the past several decades, there has been a desperate quest to find the miracle cure for ailing public schools. When a particular reform gets a lot of buzz — often based on not much more than promises and unverified stories of success — everyone wants to jump on that bandwagon.

Let’s not make that mistake and act impulsively. Our kids deserve a great, high-quality public education that is based on proven strategies, not hype.

Gov. Nathan Deal is promoting legislation to create a so-called Opportunity School District that would turn over control of struggling schools to the state or to private companies that operate charter schools. Deal is basing his design on other state takeovers, especially Louisiana’s takeover of New Orleans schools. To pressure lawmakers and fire up his supporters, he attacks public schools, saying children “trapped in these schools can’t wait.”

The only thing that is trapping kids in low-performing schools is a resistance to using proven programs that will help turn around schools and give all kids a great, high-quality public education. Let’s fix struggling schools with proven programs, not close them, farm them out or privatize them.

Parents want their neighborhood public schools improved, not taken over. And that could be done in time for the start of the 2015-16 school year. Deal says kids “can’t wait,” yet he’s pushing a bad idea that wouldn’t even get onto the state ballot until November 2016.

We know what works to turn around low-performing schools, especially in districts with high concentrations of children in poverty. About 1 in 4 children in Atlanta live in low-income households. They need supports, services and resources to ensure that their academic, health, social and emotional needs are addressed. They need targeted academic interventions, enrichment classes like art and music, in-school health clinics, and more social workers and guidance counselors.

This is how we mitigate the effects of poverty on academic achievement and help all kids achieve their potential. This strategy might not have a catchy name, but it happens to succeed.

Let’s look at New Orleans, the highly touted supposed miracle on the Gulf on which Deal’s proposal is based. Practically every public school there has become a charter school since Hurricane Katrina.

Here are the facts. No doubt about it, New Orleans public schools were struggling before Hurricane Katrina, but the main reason is that they were starved for resources. Yet, research has found that test scores for New Orleans public schools were rising before Katrina hit. Today, after the drastic privatization changes, student achievement in New Orleans schools continues to be near the bottom of all the parishes in the state of Louisiana.

And in a highly public embarrassment, Tulane University’s Cowen Institute for Public Education Initiatives was forced to retract its widely cited report hailing improved New Orleans high school performance. The institute cited “inaccurate” research and flawed methodology.

Failed policies won’t fix our schools. There is a better way.

Take New York City. Years ago, the teachers union worked closely with the school district to create the Chancellor’s District, an initiative focused on the lowest-performing schools. Through reduced class sizes, increased instructional time, after-school programs, professional development for teachers and other supports, the Chancellor’s District was able to significantly improve student outcomes.

Sadly, this innovative and successful model was disbanded when Mayor Michael Bloomberg came into office. His strategy of mass school closures, turning to charters and a fixation on testing failed to improve the public schools.

In Austin, Texas, Reagan Early College High School was slated for closure, but educators, parents and other community members fought back. The school became a community school, offering not just wraparound services for its low-income students but college-level courses that enable students to graduate with scores of college credits. Since 2008, Reagan’s graduate rate has soared from 48 percent to 85 percent.

In Cincinnati, every school was turned into a community school, providing students with access to strong academics and programs and services addressing kids’ health, social and emotional needs. Cincinnati is now the highest-performing urban school district in Ohio.

Let’s do what works, not what “sounds” good. We can do it if lawmakers are willing to show some fortitude, grit and backbone to stand up for our kids’ best interest.




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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.