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Opinion: Approve the Opportunity School District. Georgia kids need it.

Yesterday, we read an argument  against the proposed Opportunity School District. Here is a view in favor of the state takeover district from Michael O’Sullivan, StudentsFirst Georgia state director.

By Michael O’Sullivan

Across Georgia, students are heading back to school for a new year. Parents are packing lunches, teachers are planning lessons, and kids are hopping on school buses and walking into new classrooms.  But the quality of those schools varies dramatically depending on where you live.

Many students will go to a great school that will prepare them to thrive in the 21st century economy.  Sadly, tens of thousands – roughly 80,000, in fact – will return to one of Georgia’s chronically failing schools, something that will impact them for the rest of their lives.

According to Georgia’s College and Career Ready Performance Index, 139 of Georgia’s 2,200 schools are considered to be chronically failing.  These are schools that have received an F grade for at least three consecutive years and, in many cases, much longer. Too often these schools reside in our most disadvantaged communities, perpetuating the cycle of poverty.

One year trapped in a failing school is one year too many, but many Georgia students spend their entire education trapped in chronically failing schools.  For too long we have stood idly by and watched these schools fail generations of students.  Thankfully, earlier this year Gov. Nathan Deal and the Georgia Legislature took a necessary step to address this long-standing problem through the creation of Georgia’s own Opportunity School District.

The proposal was grounded in years of research and best practices from across the country.  Nearby states, like Louisiana and Tennessee, have used similar strategies and seen dramatic results. In Louisiana, the Recovery School District was tasked with turning around New Orleans’ public schools, some of the worst in the nation, after Hurricane Katrina.

Ten years later, New Orleans has some of the most impressive and sustained improvements in student performance in the country. Tulane University Professor Doug Harris recently completed an extensive study of the RSD and concluded, “We are not aware of any other districts that have made such large improvements in such a short time.”

Tennessee’s Achievement School District has the admirable goal of moving the bottom 5 percent of schools in the state to the top 25 percent. Three years in, it is already showing progress.

As a group, ASD schools in their second and third years earned the state’s highest possible growth rating, averaging a Level 5 on the Tennessee Value-Added Assessment System. In fact, according to the ASD, four of their schools “made the state’s ‘Priority Improving’ list this year, indicating they are out of the bottom 10 percent and/or demonstrating outstanding year over year gains.”

The ultimate goal is student achievement and an end to chronically failing schools in Georgia. To that end, it has been encouraging to see local school districts gain a renewed sense of urgency to turn these schools around.

Atlanta Public Schools Superintendent Meria Carstarphen recently said, “APS does not have a day to waste.” We can only hope that every district in the state with a chronically failing school will feel the same way.

If the Opportunity School District is the mechanism to instill that desire, so be it. And if a district either cannot or will not make necessary changes and the school continues to score an “F” grade on the state school assessment, the OSD will serve as a much needed safety net for those students.

Every parent dreams of sending their child to a great school, but today, too many parents do not have that opportunity.  Thanks to the governor and the bold Democrats and Republicans in the Legislature, when Georgia voters go to the ballot in 2016 they will have the chance to say that we will not stand by and do nothing while schools fail year after year.

The OSD is Georgia’s opportunity to give students and their families the education, and future, they deserve.

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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.