ATLANTA — Supporters of Gov. Nathan Deal’s turnaround plan for Georgia’s lowest performing schools point to similar strategies in other states when arguing their case for a constitutional amendment.
But in Tennessee, which uses a model similar to Georgia’s proposed Opportunity School District, the most significant impact of that state’s Achievement School District has likely been indirect so far.
“The ASD has had a pretty catalytic effect for forcing local school districts to address the needs in their priority schools,” the district’s superintendent, Malika Anderson, said this week.
In Tennessee, the lowest performing schools — or the bottom 5 percent — are known as priority schools. The state district started taking over these schools in 2012.
“What we found is that you need that extra, that external state pressure — like an ASD — to be able to incent the local district to do what they can do, and could always have done, to best support their students,” Anderson said.
The special district’s chief was featured in a conference call this week organized by a pro-Opportunity School District group, called Opportunity for All Georgia Students. Representatives of Louisiana’s Recovery School District — another inspiration for Georgia’s plan — also participated.
That event took place as proponents ramp up efforts to win over support for a constitutional amendment that will create a new state district with the power to seize failing schools and their corresponding funding. The governor would appoint its superintendent.
The ballot question, which is the first of four that voters will see on Nov. 8, has drawn opposition from education groups, a growing number of school boards and others.
The proposal has proven contentious in even parts of the state without schools poised for takeover, including in conservative north Georgia where some folks are troubled by what they see as the overreach of an expanding government.
“We’ve always been a little independent and don’t like people coming and telling us what to do,” said Jason Ridley of Murray County, who said he believes the amendment will fail.
Ridley cited his opposition to the super district during his successful campaign to oust Rep. Tom Dickson, R-Cohutta, who voted for the measure last year.
If approved by voters, the state district would either run the school, partner with local officials to operate the school, convert it to a charter, or close it. After the first three years, all of Tennessee’s ASD schools were run by charters.
Schools would become eligible for takeover after scoring below a 60 on the state’s school performance index, called the College and Career Ready Performance Index. Right now, 127 schools across the state qualify.
“Those kids are not reading on level, and the school districts are inactive,” Rep. Valencia Stovall, D-Ellenwood, said at a recent forum, referring specifically to Clayton County in her own district. “That’s the whole issue. We have school districts that are not reacting.”
But critics question whether a state agency in Atlanta can really do any better for these local schools.
They say the change usurps local control and funding, offers no clear strategy to save failing schools and will lead to the further privatization of public education. They also argue the ballot language is misleading.
“It does provide an opportunity. The question is for whom?” said Tanya Washington, an education law professor at Georgia State University.
The university’s law department put on a debate this week, pitting supporters of the proposal – such as Stovall – against those fighting in opposition. It was one of many recent forums held across the state, as voters try to dig into the details of what the ballot is asking.
If the amendment passes, it will allow a significant shift in governance, said Washington. The state’s executive branch would take control of failing schools that are currently the responsibility of the legislative branch, in this case local school boards.
“I don’t see a pattern of success (in other states) that would motivate us to take a chance, especially when what’s at risk is our most vulnerable students,” Washington said.
In Tennessee, the most measurable improvement has been seen at schools where local school districts are leading the turnaround efforts in state-created Innovation Zones, said Gary Henry, a professor at Vanderbilt University.
“So far, we have not seen consistent, positive results in the ASD schools in Tennessee,” he said. “They are doing about the same as other chronically low-performing schools that didn’t receive turnaround services.”
Henry said locally led initiatives, such as the Tennessee’s Innovation Zone schools, tend to reap “more immediate and direct benefits for the students and their long-term life opportunities than the state takeover model.”
But — as Anderson said — these improvements likely would not have happened without pressure from the state, Henry said.
That threat of state intervention is already shaking up things in Georgia, said Michael O’Sullivan, director of the education advocacy group GeorgiaCAN and a supporter of the amendment.
“If nothing else, this entire conversation has brought to light the fact that there are chronically failing schools in our state, and that there are 127 of them,” O’Sullivan said this week.
If the amendment passes, Georgia’s plan will likely need an infusion of resources and a keen focus on recruiting, developing and retaining quality teachers and staff to make it successful, Henry said.
Right now, he said many details about the Opportunity School District remain unclear.
“At this point, I just see it as being so open-ended, it’s hard to know if it’s likely to actually help the students that we all care about so much,” he said.
Jill Nolin covers the Georgia Statehouse for CNHI's newspapers and websites. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.