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Opinion: Gov. Deal doesn't have to look to New Orleans for inspiration. Georgia models exist.

Dr. Jim Arnold is the former superintendent of Pelham City Schools in Georgia. He blogs here.

Today, Arnold takes up a topic of great interest on the blog -- Gov. Nathan Deal's proposal to get the state into the business of taking over failing schools through the model used in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.

You can read another view on Deal's plan here .

By Jim Arnold

Name a state program or agency that you would describe as a model of efficiency, effectiveness and progress. I know. Me neither.

One of the last solutions anybody would come up with that really wanted to solve a problem would be more governmental involvement. So why does Gov. Nathan Deal think that a new state agency disguised as the Opportunity School District would fare any better?

I’m not sure he does. I think Gov. Deal promised himself into an educational corner during the heat of an election and had to come up with something, and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal happened to visit on his way to Washington and said, “You should see what we pulled off in New Orleans. We nearly doubled the number of charter schools and things are going so well I might even run for president.”

But wait a minute. Are things in New Orleans really going that well for education? In the early fall of 2014, the Cowen Institute at Tulane University withdrew its entire report touting the enormous academic improvements for the Recovery School District in NOLA.

Someone ­-- gasp -- had cooked the books and used selected data to make a report that presented the RSD in a favorable academic light.

Using accurate data comparing the RSD with other public schools in Louisiana shows the RSD charters perform consistently in the bottom third of all schools. The vast majority of charters in Louisiana, except for those with a selective admissions process, are rated D or F by their own state. The RSD we are supposed to emulate was rated as one of the lowest performing districts in the state.

The latest Louisiana DOE testing results puts the RSD at the 17th percentile among all public school districts in the state.

Those schools taken over in New Orleans and converted to charters perform at a rate below 83 percent of all Louisiana schools in spite of the fact a special law was passed that allowed the state to take over failing schools.

Corporate reformers and privatizers of public education have used selective bogus data to promote exaggerated reports of academic progress of students in the RSD to encourage other states to emulate the New Orleans model. Maybe, they believe that if others go along with what’s turned out to be a really bad idea they won’t look so silly all by themselves. Retractions of these reports are rarely mentioned, and the urban legend of miraculous improvements continues unchallenged.

  • Six percent of the high school seniors in the RSD scored high enough to qualify for admission to a Louisiana university.
  • Since 2005, average RSD ACT scores have improved 2 percent to 16.4, among the lowest in the state. This is the model we want? If the goal is to increase the number of charter schools there are simpler ways to do it.  If the goal is to help students in schools struggling to meet state requirements there are better paths to follow than imitating New Orleans or Tennessee and creating what amounts to a new school district in Georgia.

Gov. Deal also says it will take a constitutional amendment to make his plan work. He also said more money is not the solution to the problem of failing schools. Those two statements create a conundrum. Will a constitutional amendment vote, the preparation and advertising and legislative expense it entails plus yet another layer or three of bureaucracy not cost additional money?

Has anyone estimated just how much that might be? What about costs above and beyond what might be available for those failing schools outside the Atlanta area? It might be a good idea for somebody to figure up exactly what the governor’s talking about here in additional expenditures or at least an estimate of new costs and old costs and where the additional money might come from. Yes, additional money.

Don’t kid yourself. Fighting the effects of poverty won’t be free, and the further you go from the city limits of Atlanta the more it’s going to cost. Teachers might move to New Orleans because, well, it’s New Orleans.  Rural Georgia might not have the same attraction, even with all the free gnats you can eat.

Then there are questions about the path itself. A superintendent that reports directly to the governor?  A way to get around educational red tape or a trial run for doing away with our elected state superintendent of schools?

Eliminating rules, laws and regulations that hinder student achievement? If there are rules and laws and regulations that hinder student achievement in any way at any school, why is that rule, law or regulation allowed to stand?

What defense could any legislator possibly have for supporting rules and regulations that inhibit student achievement -- unless, of course, those rules and regulations were intended to make things difficult for those public government (pronounced gummint) anti-prayer, anti-God communist schools that use up all the tax money that might be better spent on market-based solutions and vouchers and private schools and more ALEC initiatives?

If the goal is to help students in struggling schools, there are several options Gov. Deal might want to explore before creating an educational tangent to nowhere. Perhaps the first thing might be to talk to Georgia schools superintendents who have developed learning organizations that have shown, over time, educational efficacy.

Leaders who have learned how to effectively and continuously recruit, employ, develop, and retain teachers, leaders and employees who work to achieve the mission and goals of the organization, and whose mission and goals are focused on student learning and achievement. There are several across our state, and they are not hard to find. These are certainly more deserving of emulation than untested, unproven ideas from elsewhere.

Another suggestion would be to look at the professional learning programs for teachers and leaders in selected schools sponsored by PAGE through their High School Redesign Initiative. Training teachers and leaders to collaborate to create engaging work for students rather than focus on an insistence on conformity has created islands of student learning and achievement in different geographic regions around the state, and deserves at least a look for those looking for a blueprint for educational progress.

Governor, the answer is simple and it’s not one you want to hear. There are no magic bullets and there will be no deus ex machina at the end of your term. The answer is teachers collaborating with other teachers, sharing skills and knowledge and experiences, mentoring and working together to improve student achievement.

It’s going to cost something, and it’s going to require ending the war on teaching. Teachers are not the enemy. They are the solution. Treat them with respect and dignity and you might be surprised at the results you get.

Gov. Deal was right when he said, “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’re talking about helping failing schools, we’re talking about rescuing children.”

I hope he means that. It should be easy to tell. All we have to do is see if he decides to follow through on a failed idea from somewhere else or build on one of several effective models grown here in Georgia.

Do the right thing, governor, and you've answered your own question of “How’s that working for you?”


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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.