If you want to meet the person who’s the real state school superintendent, it’s easy to find his office.
Go to the second floor of the state Capitol and look for the door marked “Governor.” Then ask the receptionist if you can say hello to Nathan Deal.
The passage of legislation authorizing a state takeover of low-performing schools ensures that the superintendent will be Deal — not that guy named Richard Woods who the voters elected last year.
Georgia will have an “Opportunity School District” headed by a person who answers only to the governor. This unelected official will have the power to take over the operation of a school, shut down that school, or convert it to a charter school.
Deal says his takeover program will put poorly performing schools on the road to success. “We know from other states such as Louisiana and Tennessee that these programs can produce positive results for students and communities,” he said when his proposal was rolled out.
It would be great if that actually happened, but history suggests otherwise. This is a path Georgia has traveled several times in recent years.
There was the A-Plus education reform of Roy Barnes, the “65 percent solution” and the “Investing in Educational Excellence” plans of Sonny Perdue, the charter system initiative of Casey Cagle, and the state charter school commission that Deal promoted three years ago. You can also throw in George Bush’s “No Child Left Behind” program.
Each of these proposals was going to be the solution that turned around the state’s subpar schools. The reality is that Georgia’s schools still rank low in such measurements as average SAT scores and high school graduation rates.
As we’ve noted previously in this space, Georgia’s lawmakers and governors have spent the past decade making “austerity cuts” in the formula funding for public schools that totaled more than $8 billion. Many systems were subsequently forced to lay off teachers and eliminate classroom instruction days to cope with the loss of state money.
After cutting off the funding to local systems, state officials then criticized the schools for failing to improve student performance. They remind me of the arsonist who sets fire to a house, then blames the fire department for not getting there fast enough to extinguish the blaze.
I will take the governor at his word that he really wants to improve the performance of public schools. But this latest proposal appears to be more about grabbing tax money than about educating kids.
The key to the Opportunity School District program is the authority it has to convert a traditional public school to a charter school. There is a fast-growing business sector of for-profit companies that make big bucks by managing charter schools.
When Deal’s takeover plan has been implemented, you can expect these out-of-state companies to swoop into Georgia, sign lucrative contracts with the Opportunity School District to manage the schools that are being converted, and be paid large sums of tax money for their services.
A clear indication that this will happen is the fact that StudentsFirst, an organization that lobbies for the expansion of charter schools, recently paid the tab for Deal and other state officials to take a “fact-finding” trip to New Orleans where a similar takeover program was enacted. Charter school management firms clearly have Georgia on their minds as the next big opportunity to extract profits from taxpayers.
There is still one political hurdle for Deal to clear in his proposal for a school takeover. Voters will have to approve a constitutional amendment that will be on the ballot in 2016.
It is safe to predict that the amendment will pass, probably by a similar margin as Deal’s constitutional amendment in 2012 to establish the state charter school commission. Charter school foundations and lobbying organizations will likely pour millions into the campaign to promote the amendment’s passage.
The creation of the Opportunity School District may turn out to be a good thing for students, or it may result in the looting of the state treasury. Either way, the governor effectively becomes the superintendent in charge of running public schools.
Woods and the people who serve on local school boards will just have to find some other way to pass their time.
Tom Crawford is editor of The Georgia Report.