Local school officials are still assessing the plan announced Wednesday by Gov. Nathan Deal to tackle the problem of Georgia’s chronically failing schools.
The proposal would allow certain schools that have consistently underperformed to be brought into one statewide school district, which would be managed by a superintendent who reports directly to the governor.
Before criticizing or supporting the plan, Hall County Schools Superintendent Will Schofield says it’s important to consider where both its proponents and critics are coming from.
“I understand both sides of that story,” Schofield said. “Individuals, particularly parents, who have children that have been in schools that languish for a decade or more, I can’t begin to understand their frustration.”
Deal’s office estimates about 6 percent of Georgia’s schools, 141 total, would be eligible for admission into the statewide school district based on their past three years’ scores on Georgia’s College and Career Ready Performance Index.
Twenty-seven eligible schools are in the Atlanta Public School System, 26 in DeKalb County. Their eligibility, however, doesn’t mean they’ll be admitted.
Beginning in 2017, the superintendent could select up to 20 schools to join the state district per year. At any time, the district would be limited to 100 schools total.
The statewide district would be under direct supervision of a superintendent, who rather than working under the state education department would report directly to the governor’s office.
“On a positive side, I don’t see a lot of bureaucracy with that,” Schofield said. “You need to hire the right person and give them a tremendous amount of autonomy to get a job done. But again I haven’t seen enough specifics to have a strong opinion either way.”
Deal’s proposal would give the new superintendent several options in dealing with the underperforming schools, such as partially or fully assuming operational control of a struggling school, converting the school into a charter or closing a school that is below full enrollment.
The governor has cited the use of a recovery school district in the New Orleans area of Louisiana as inspiration for his proposal. In 2003, Louisiana passed legislation permitting the takeover of chronically failing schools by the Louisiana Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, creating a statewide Recovery School District run similarly to the model in Deal’s proposal. After Hurricane Katrina, the legislature handed over control of more than 100 schools in the New Orleans area to the RSD.
Tulane University’s Cowen Institute for Public Education Initiatives found the RSD had the greatest percentage point increase in student scores on state standardized tests from 2007 to 2011, but still posted scores consistently below the state average.
The jury is still out as to whether Louisiana’s model is a success. Such a short-term assessment is hard to make, Schofield said.
“I think we like to do something for a couple years and then say whether it’s been effective or not. But my time in education says you’re going to need a decade of something just to determine how effective it’s been,” Schofield said.
Gainesville City Schools Board of Education member Sammy Smith said research is needed to judge the plan.
“Much more study will need to be focused on not only the models for which we’re told, also the practicality and the cost,” Smith said.
According to Deal’s proposal, funding for the statewide district would come from the typical allotment of state revenue, private donations and additional money allocated by the legislature. Up to 3 percent of a district’s state funds could be withheld to pay the additional cost.
There also are no details offered on how the statewide district would work with administrators and faculty already in place at the failing schools.
“I think the state needs to be extremely cautious about taking over schools — that’s the other side of that coin,” Schofield said.
The plan would be proposed as a constitutional amendment, so it first has to pass both chambers of the legislature by two-thirds majorities, then appear before voters in a referendum the following year.
“It’s important to know at this juncture of the legislative session that it is indeed a work in progress,” Smith said.