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Loser in Opportunity School District battle: Relations between governor and educators

The referendum to allow state takeover of failing schools will be decided in two weeks, but there’s already a loser in the war of words over Amendment 1 — relations between the governor and Georgia educators.

Opposition to his Opportunity School District by teachers and school boards has aggravated Gov. Nathan Deal and it shows. In recent speeches, Deal assailed school boards — more than 40 of which passed anti-OSD resolutions — as monopolies more interested in retaining power than revitalizing schools.

He’s alarmed teachers with what many regard as a blatant intimidation tactic. On Friday, Deal’s chief of staff sent out an Open Records request to every school district in Georgia for how they use payroll deductions for dues in teacher groups, which may be the foundation of legislation banning such deductions with the aim of driving down membership rolls.

In taking aim at locally elected officials and educators, Deal has risked the opportunity to win over the very groups necessary for his OSD to succeed. The first rule of effective school reform: Get teachers and communities on board. Deal has alienated both.

In trying to sell the OSD to middle-class voters, Deal has been casting it as an anti-crime measure that will prevent high school dropouts living in neighborhoods with nothing "worth stealing" from going to areas with “nice homes.” With that troubling sales pitch, it's hard to see how low-income communities will believe Deal values their children.

And the OSD hinges on gaining the trust of the community. The Tennessee Achievement District, on which Deal modeled the OSD, stumbled because parents were skeptical of the new charter school leadership hired to run local schools. A recent state-commissioned review of the Tennessee district noted, “Absent a student population whose families sought out schools that met their values and priorities, several providers struggled to engender parent buy-in and engagement.”

If Amendment 1 passes — and I still believe the sunny wording of the ballot question favors passage — the public relations wreckage will take a long time to repair. Rather than approaching failing schools as a challenge educators, districts, parents and the state should fix together, Deal adopted an us vs. them stance.

In an appearance at a south Fulton church Tuesday night, Deal accused school boards of squandering flexibility and additional state dollars. “We have given them more flexibility in the last three years than they’ve ever had as to how they spend the money and we have given them more money than they ever had in the history of this state,” said Deal.

What Deal neglected to mention: The rise in state funding reflects a rise in enrollment in part. Nor did the he admit the state still sends less money to schools than recommended under the Georgia funding formula. Despite high numbers of children in poverty, Georgia spends $1,800 less on each student than the national average and ranks 38th in per-student spending.

Deal describes the 127 schools eligible for his Opportunity School District as the “worst of the worst” based on their test scores. Teachers and school boards contend the governor omits another critical fact about those schools: They are also among the poorest of the poor.

Even though family socio-economics influence school and student achievement, Deal and the Legislature prefer to blame recalcitrant school boards and passionless teachers. The assessment of the Tennessee Achievement District cites the out-sized impact of poverty, saying, “…the stresses of an impoverished community presented even the most experienced providers with steep challenges.”

Deal’s compounded those challenges by offending critical constituencies he will need in his corner to win over communities if the OSD passes.

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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.