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Opinion: Georgia school districts ought to take opportunity now to fix schools or risk state takeover

Jordan Posamentier is deputy policy director at the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington Bothell.

Posamentier works with more than 45 cities pursuing a portfolio strategy for managing their schools systems.

According to the center, "In portfolio cities, families have the freedom to attend their neighborhood schools or choose one that is the best fit for their child. The portfolio strategy supports principals and teachers—those who work most closely with students—and frees them to use their best ideas to ignite student learning. And it presses city and district leaders to support and expand successful schools until every child in the city attends a great school."

By Jordan Posamentier

If Gov. Nathan Deal’s “Opportunity School District” plan passes this session, a new statewide district will soon have the authority to turn around up to 100 chronically failing schools across the state. But school district leaders don't have to wait to start doing something to improve poor-performing schools, thanks to flexibilities they have today.

Deal wants Georgia lawmakers to learn from states like Louisiana, whose state turnaround school system has brought promising student results. Louisiana’s Recovery School District leads the state in student growth, with proficiency rates on annual tests climbing over a seven-year period from 23 percent in 2007 to 57 percent in 2014.

Similarly, in just one year, students in Tennessee’s state-run Achievement School District achieved a jump of 2.2 percent in math proficiency and 3.4 percent in language arts from 2013 to 2014.

If Georgia lawmakers OK the governor’s plan this session, the changes wouldn’t become a reality until 2016, when voters would have to approve a constitutional amendment to let the plan move forward.

In the meantime, Georgia school district leaders have the opportunity before them to fix their own schools.

In 2008, state lawmakers required every school system to sign on to one of three operating models by July 2015: the “status quo,” which offers no flexibility from state mandates; Investing in Educational Excellence, which offers districts flexibility from some state rules, like class size, in exchange for signing a performance contract with the state; or charter, the most dramatic shift from the way traditional school districts operate.

Under the charter system (which can include charter and non-charter schools), districts must establish school-level governing boards with decision-making authority. They gain robust flexibility from state mandates in exchange for agreeing to meet certain student performance goals.

School districts may feel reluctant about adopting, much less embracing, any state mandate. But school system leaders should see the charter option as a real opportunity, not just the state’s latest compliance exercise.

Leaders in Fulton County Schools, the state’s fourth-largest school system, have been using the charter option since 2012 and seeing success. With flexibility from state mandates, Fulton County is pursuing a strategy that decentralizes decision-making to its school communities.

Fulton County is part of a growing network of cities (more than 45 cities nationally representing over 4 million students) that are pursuing some variation of the“portfolio strategy,” in which leaders think about empowering schools in new ways. The strategy gives schools more control over budgets and teachers, gives families the freedom to choose from a variety of schools, and presses leaders to expand successful schools until every child attends a great school regardless of their zip code.

Veteran portfolio cities have reaped student achievement gains, improved leader and teacher talent, and have attracted families into their school systems. When New York City launched the strategy in 2003, fewer than half of its 1.1 million students graduated high school in four years. Ten years later, nearly two-thirds did, with African-American and Hispanic students posting the biggest graduation gains.

Fulton County is turning over major program decisions to its schools, tapping proven pipelines for great teachers, and paying the best teachers more to teach in struggling schools. Early results are encouraging.

Community engagement is high, and in recent years dropout rates have fallen (overall 24 percent to 12 percent, and for African-American students, 34 percent to 17 percent), and graduation rates are on the rise (Fulton County Schools in 2014 boasted the Atlanta metro area’s highest graduation rate, nearly 79 percent).

Fulton County is bringing about the change it wants to see in its school district. Other Georgia districts have the opportunity to do the same. If they don’t act, a new district will do it for them.

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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.