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Opinion: Governor is using excuse of failing schools to privatize education

Jamie C. Atkinson is a Ph.D. student and graduate teaching assistant at the University of Georgia in the College of Education’s Department of Educational Theory and Practice. In this piece, he challenges the governor's justifications for his Opportunity School District, a state-run entity that, if approved by voters in November, will give the state the power to take over failing schools.

By Jamie C. Atkinson

“Shall the Constitution of Georgia be amended to allow the state to intervene in chronically failing public schools in order to improve student performance?”

Who would vote “no” for such an amendment?

In November, voters will face this very misleading ballot initiative, which on the surface, seems grand. We all want the best for the children of Georgia, so if Gov. Nathan Deal and the Georgia General Assembly want to help our children, then we should vote for this, right?

The Opportunity School District superintendent will have absolute authority over which schools become part of the OSD, become a charter school, or are shut down. The schools most likely to end up in this district are the schools that serve poor, urban areas and have a high percentage of minority students. Georgia voters may remember that in 2012, a similar misleading ballot initiative, the Charter School Amendment, came under a great deal of scrutiny. That resulting “yes” vote helped usher in this year’s ballot initiative.

In addition, what does chronically failing mean and how is that determined? Chronically failing schools are defined as having a score of “F” for three consecutive years on the state’s accountability system that include state standardized tests and the College and Career Ready Performance Index. Though seemingly a legitimate way of determining chronically failing schools, these assessments are assumed to adequately identify academic aptitudes and infer that other evaluation methods are less objective and less effective in assessing children’s academic abilities.

More importantly, these evaluations are based solely on standardized testing instruments that have shown to be of limited value. If we base student performance and school success purely on standardized test results, then we ignore the fact that education and learning are extremely complex and difficult to measure with standardized exams.

How many of us would be willing to take a multiple choice test, designed by someone other than our teachers (e.g., a profit-based testing company), often biased toward middle-class, white, sociocultural knowledge, and feel that we received a fair evaluation? Tests are just one tool designed to evaluate knowledge of a given subject and they are often only marginally effective in reflecting the breadth of knowledge students possess.

Also disturbing is the trend to utilize vague, misleading ballot measures for the purpose of swaying the voter. Misleading ballot initiatives have come up several times and have led to expensive lawsuits.

For example, in 2012, the Georgia Charter School Amendment, mentioned earlier, was taken to court for its vague, some might say, deceptive language, and plaintiffs argued that it almost certainly guaranteed the passage of that amendment. An interesting fact regarding that case materialized on Feb. 3, 2012, when state Rep. Tommy Benton, R-Jefferson, responded to a constituent in an email that “the vagueness of the ballot wording is something they want to keep. They think if they keep it vague it will more easily pass.”

Now in all fairness, he told the AJC this was taken out of context, but it calls into question the motives of the governor and Georgia’s General Assembly. According to a Georgia Supreme Court case in 1974, Sears v. State of GA, the court affirmed that “to the extent to which the legislature describes proposed amendments in any way other than through the most objective and brief of terms…it exposes itself to the temptation…to interject its own value judgments concerning the amendments into the ballot language and thus to propagandize the voters in the very voting booth, in denigration of the integrity of the ballot.”

The Georgia voters should understand Gov. Deal’s strategic goal is to increase the extent of privatization and the number of charter schools in the state, similar paths taken by Louisiana, Tennessee, and Michigan. Moreover, these schemes tend to be presented as necessary and under the guise of crisis-related language such as “chronically failing schools.”

The governor’s primary purpose has less to do with conservatively maintaining local control and more to do with turning the public schools over to for-profit corporations. I encourage each voter to read in its entirety, Georgia Senate Bill 133 whose language comes straight out of the playbook of the American Legislative Exchange Council and numerous other groups that are proponents of charter school privatization.

Gov.Deal and Georgia’s General Assembly assume the Georgia voter is too distracted to discover the devil in the details. Are you? I encourage everyone to vote “no” in November in order to save our public schools, protect our most vulnerable children, and protect the integrity of the ballot.


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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.