By Ty Tagami
Georgia voters must soon consider whether to approve an enduring overhaul of K-12 education, and they'll have little information to go on.
The November ballot will ask Georgians to decide whether they want a state-run district that would take over failing schools. A "yes" vote would amend the state constitution, creating change that would last long beyond an election cycle and become part of the fabric of the educational system.
Despite the magnitude and staying power of the proposal, voters will be taking a leap of faith. No other state has done exactly as Georgia proposes, so there is no clear trail to follow.
Many point to Louisiana, since that state launched an ambitious takeover plan that brought profound change to schools in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.
Debates persist about what to take away from the New Orleans experience, but a recent study from Tulane University found that student test scores “shot upward after the reforms,” and that high school graduation and college-entry rates climbed, too.
The lead researcher, Douglas Harris of Tulane, wrote of the study, “We are not aware of any other districts that have made such large improvements in such a short time.”
That's where things get blurry for Georgia. Although proponents of the Peach State's proposed Opportunity School District have pointed at New Orleans as a model, voters may want to focus closer to home, across the state line in Tennessee.
That's where Vanderbilt professor Gary Henry says Georgians will find the nearest analogy to their school takeover plan. As with Tennessee's Achievement School District (ASD), Georgia students would remain at their failing schools, but they would be placed under new administration. One of the options includes conversion to charter oversight.
New Orleans also converted its old neighborhood schools to charters, but Georgia's proposal differs significantly from what happened there because in New Orleans the old attendance zones were eliminated along with the management. Students could enroll in any city school, so the neighborhood schools ceased to serve only the surrounding homes.
It's an important distinction because demographic characteristics such as poverty correlate with academic performance, and property values tend to reflect performance, too. Schools in pockets of poverty tend to do poorly, while schools in middle-class neighborhoods typically do better.
The New Orleans takeover district broke that geographic link, but Georgia's model, like the one in Tennessee, would keep it.
Last year, Henry and others published an evaluation of the Tennessee district’s effect, and said the performance has been uninspiring. He attributes it to a fish-out-of water problem: Charter schools have traditionally operated under a choice model, allowing parents to match student needs to the strengths of a school. That advantage was neutralized when these charters had to take all comers like the neighborhood schools they replaced.
Henry spoke at a recent conference for journalists who cover education, where he said Georgia's constitutional amendment is based on a strategy that has produced few dividends in Tennessee.
“We’re just not seeing the data that this is helping kids,” he said.
Some schools in Tennessee have improved, but typically it was because they were not actually taken over. Rather, the threat of state intervention inspired a vigorous response from local systems, something that may already have inspired some metro Atlanta schools to act. The phenomenon was clearest in urban Tennessee districts that benefited from an infusion of state grants from a separate turnaround program called the "innovation zone."
This basically set up a competition between the i-Zone districts and the ASD. The i-Zones saw bigger academic gains, Henry said.
By following a simple recipe: officials raised the pay and lured some of their best principals and teachers to high-poverty schools that had been neglected for years. The turnover rate fell relative to the ASD, leading to greater stability.
“The key ingredient to school turnaround," Henry said, "is teacher recruitment and — let me underscore this three times – teacher retention.”
Henry knows Georgia well, having previously worked on education policy at Georgia State University. You can catch his talk in person: He'll be speaking about the Opportunity School District at the University of Georgia's State of Education conference this fall.