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What's impeding school reform: Education monopoly or lack of support?

I wrote a column for the print AJC today on last week's passage of the Opportunity School District . I didn't plan to share the column on the blog as I thought we had covered this topic enough.

To share Delk's piece, I had to also post my column:

I wrote:

In arguing last week for a constitutional amendment granting the governor sweeping new powers to take over failing schools, legislators said they could not stand by and let children languish in underperforming schools

Yet lawmakers stood by for a decade while schools endured budget cuts so devastating that two-thirds of Georgia's districts slashed their school calendars. They stood by while systems crammed 40 kids in a math class and axed band, after-school enrichment and field trips.

Even as they acknowledged defects in Gov Nathan Deal's school takeover bill, lawmakers contended they could not wait another day; students were suffering now.

But students have suffered since 2003 from $7.6 billion in funding cuts. Hardest hit by the cuts were rural districts that could not make up the lost funds through local property digests, and low-income children for whom lower class sizes and after-school programs mean the difference between passing and failing

When districts complained to the Legislature, the reply was succinct: Do more with less.

The state's indifference to the plight of struggling districts contributed to the rupture between former state schools Superintendent John Barge and Deal, prompting Barge's infamous letter to the Legislature in which he wrote, "It is a travesty and a shame what our state is doing to our rural and most needy school districts. The children in these districts deserve every opportunity that children elsewhere in Georgia have."

The governor would counter he's now giving those children their opportunity. The schools absorbed into his proposed Opportunity School District --- no more than 20 a year, and no more than 100 total --- will somehow be reborn as places of learning and promise under the direction of a hand-picked state school district superintendent. (Note the newly elected state school superintendent and the state Department of Education are set adrift on an iceberg in this plan.)

"We have both a moral duty and a self-serving interest in rescuing these children, " Deal said after the House approved his plan. "Every child should have a fair shot at doing better than their parents before them, and we as a society benefit if more Georgians have the education and job skills needed to attract high-paying jobs."

Like the governor, I want fewer failing schools in Georgia. But unlike the governor, I don't think a new bureaucracy and a new name will be enough. Failing schools reflect failing communities and failed policies.

And many of those failed policies trace back to the Capitol. Gov. Deal and the General Assembly want voters to grant them new powers to intervene in failing schools. Yet those same state leaders don't use the powers they already have to address the impoverishment and hopelessness of the communities that produce those schools.

Speaker Pro Tem Jan Jones lamented children in failing schools facing "foreclosed" futures. How about the real foreclosures that decimate neighborhoods? (In a recent six-year period, nearly 654,000 homes in the state were foreclosed on due to lax laws the Legislature has refused to improve.)

Perhaps joblessness, economic development, predatory lending laws, mental health services and health care --- areas the governor and Legislature legitimately ought to lead --- are too formidable.

I used to believe a school could be the sole beacon amid the blight, that it could lead everyone out of the darkness. Now, I realize schools can't light the way alone. Rebuilding schools begins with rebuilding communities.

And Delk responded:

Maureen Downey blames Gov. Deal and the Republican members of the General Assembly for denying Georgia’s children real educational opportunities, claiming that more money, not an Opportunity School District, is needed.

She and the rest of the members of the Education Industrial Complex conveniently choose to ignore history and the reality that public education in Georgia and the entire U.S. operate a bureaucratic, unproductive monopoly which is responsible for the poor choices available to Georgia’s families.

While I initially opposed the Opportunity School District, the reaction of the opponents to Gov. Deal’s efforts has reminded me why we should support dismantling the monopoly by any means necessary, including voting in favor of a state takeover of “failing” schools.

Democrats and liberals such as Ms. Downey have argued for three decades that more money will result in more than 2 of 100 minority students achieving a two- or four-year college degree, as the current system does.

According to members of the Education Complex, more money will somehow change the fact that, according to the 2013 ACT report on Georgia, 94 percent of black students, 81 percent of Hispanic students, and 65 percent of white students in Georgia who graduate from high school are not college-ready in all four major subjects.

Ms. Downey and liberal co-conspirators oppose any effort to give Georgia’s children, especially minority children, the chance, as Gov. Deal has said,  at ”a fair shot at doing better than their parents before them.”

Like the teachers’ union, the school boards’ association and the superintendents’ association, Ms. Downey chooses to ignore the cold hard fact that, contrary to her claim that we have to rebuild communities before academic performance can improve, organizations such as KIPP, Basis Schools and High Tech High have proven low-income minority students, can and do perform at world class levels without spending more money, if freed from the current monopoly.

For example, Basis students, while receiving $6,500 per student, far less than Georgia’s average of $9,000, outperform the entire world on the international tests.

Ms. Downey and opponents of giving students additional opportunities to escape the monopoly known as district-run schools should attend the April 22 screening in Brookhaven of the documentary, “Most Likely to Succeed.”  The movie shows what is possible when the best and brightest are hired to teach, treated as true professionals with freedom and autonomy to teach students who’ve chosen to attend and expected to take ownership of their education.

The movie focuses on High Tech High, a San Diego-based charter network, which, while operating on $7,200 per student, has managed to achieve an 88 percent graduation rate from college. More than 8,000 students apply annually for the 400 slots, while 1,500 teachers apply for 50 positions. High Tech High has no admission tests, with students chosen by a random lottery.

History shows us that monopolies do not give up their power voluntarily.  Georgians should back Gov. Deal and the General Assembly and vote in favor of the Opportunity School District.

Back to Maureen:

Basis is a very interesting concept . Follow the link to read a piece by one of the school leaders written in response to news reports of high attrition rates. Read the comments from parents that follow the piece.

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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.