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Should Georgia school superintendents fight the governor's takeover proposal?

In November, Gov. Nathan Deal will ask Georgia voters to approve a constitutional amendment granting the state broad new powers to take over failing schools, close them, run them or convert them to independent charter schools. Deal has given his proposal the bright, shiny name of Opportunity School District. The congenial wording of the constitutional amendment is equally sunny and beckoning.

If the OSD is approved, the state would have authority over the schools absorbed into the new district and could oust principals and teachers, change structure and focus and control spending.

My view: The OSD is overreach and likely to produce little change in student performance. Wrenching schools from their local roots and alienating the staffs who know the children and community have not proven a formula for transformation.

That said, the OSD will pass overwhelmingly.

Georgians endorse all ballot questions, largely because the amendments are written to assure that outcome. The OSD amendment will ask: Shall the Constitution of Georgia be amended to allow the state to intervene in chronically failing public schools in order to improve student performance?

When the Richmond County Democratic Party put a nonbinding question on the May 24 ballot  to raise awareness about the OSD amendment, it went for a bleaker tone: Shall the constitution of Georgia be amended to allow an appointee of the governor to bypass the elected state school superintendent in order to take over local school operations, buildings and control of all federal, state and local funding if a school has low scores on standardized tests or for any other reason a future legislative act may allow?

Given the inevitability of passage, what is the appropriate political posture of school leaders around the state, most of whom oppose state takeover? Should they rail against the inevitable on principle or should they fortify their own struggling schools to escape takeover?

DeKalb and Atlanta Public Schools, the districts most susceptible to losing schools to the OSD, have chosen the latter. Steve Green of DeKalb and Atlanta’s Meria Carstarphen are rolling out reforms to bolster the case they're better positioned to repair schools than an appointed OSD czar. Fast-tracking improvement plans in targeted schools has become the priority, rather than barnstorming against OSD.

Meeting with the AJC editorial board this week, Georgia Federation of Teachers President Verdaillia Turner faulted school chiefs for failing to use their bully pulpits to castigate the OSD.

In her plan to turn some struggling APS schools over to charter school groups, Carstarphen is doing what she was hired to do, said Turner. “Privatize the schools."

“We don’t believe there is a board of education in Atlanta,” said Turner. “You have a board there legally, and it seems as if Dr. Carstarphen has checks and balances, but Courtney English [board chair], from when he first stepped on that board, is a rubber stamper and yes man. “

And Green sees DeKalb as another wrung on his career ladder, said Turner. “Superintendent Green came from Kansas. He is going to leave DeKalb County. We are here to stay,” she said. After meeting with the governor, Green lost the “zeal to oppose the Opportunity School district,” added Turner.

Even if the odds favor OSD approval, Turner said superintendents ought to stand with Clarke County Superintendent Philip Lanoue in speaking out against it. "They should do what's right," she said.

At a press conference by OSD opponents in December, Lanoue laid out the basics of the appeal to voters to reject the state-takeover plan."We need to help you build your community around your school and we can do that outside the Opportunity School District. But if you vote this in, what you've said is that you're giving the responsibility to educate your children to someone else," he said.

The 2015 National Superintendent of the Year, Lanoue has been more willing than many of his colleagues to criticize the governor and Legislature. That doesn't mean other school chiefs around Georgia like the OSD. It means they believe there isn't much they can do to stop it.

Turner described the OSD as a tsunami that will devastate communities by seizing schools. "It won't stop with a 100 schools," she said. "People do not understand this will take away our local control. If you don't like your board of education, vote them out." She twice quoted the popular R&B star Bobby Womack lyric, "If you think you're lonely now, wait until tonight."

Turner said she understands some people are frustrated with the pace of reform in Georgia, but she blamed the chronic underfunding of education, the historical top-down nature of state reforms, the marginalization of teachers in reform discussions and a refusal to acknowledge the impact of poverty on student achievement.

With the political clout behind the OSD, Turner said she knows she's facing "a Goliath and all I have is a slingshot."




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Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.