ATLANTA — Gov. Nathan Deal’s plan allowing a state takeover of schools dubbed “chronically failing” won Georgia House approval Wednesday, setting up a statewide vote in 2016 and accomplishing the Republican’s top priority kicking off his second term.
Under Deal’s plan, an appointed superintendent accountable to the governor could add up to 20 schools to the district each year and have the power to close, convert them into charter schools or overhaul management. The district could not include more than 100 schools total.
Schools would become eligible if they score below 60 for three years in a row on the state’s index for measuring student performance and growth. Deal’s office estimates nearly 140 schools would be eligible based on recent results.
The constitutional amendment and accompanying legislation were last-minute additions to the day’s House calendar. Both pieces of legislation have passed the state Senate, with the amendment receiving exactly the two-thirds support needed for a constitutional change.
The House passed the amendment with one spare vote, 121-47.
The enabling legislation, which includes details of how the new district would function, requires Senate agreement after a House committee made some minor changes. It passed the House, 108-53.
In a written statement, Deal said he believes voters will support the idea “because they want these children to have a chance in life, they want them to get an education; they want them to have good jobs, support their families and be productive, law-abiding citizens.”
Supporters on the House floor largely steered discussion away from details of how the district would work and urged members to let the concept be decided by voters.
“This legislation will act as a challenge to those local boards, to say ‘If you don’t get your house in order then we will,’” said sponsoring Rep. Christian Coomer, R-Cartersville and one of Deal’s floor leaders.
Three Democrats were among those speaking in support, though the caucus earlier this week decided to take a position against the amendment. Rep. Stacey Evans, D-Smyrna, called it “imperfect but a very good measure.”
Organizations representing teachers, school boards and other education stakeholders largely oppose the plan.
Members voting against the amendment Wednesday said it gives a governor — whoever that may be — too much power over education in the state.
“I worry about what a future governor may look like,” conservative Republican Rep. David Stover of Newnan said. “Now for me, a Democrat in charge may be bad. For me, a Republican who’s an anarchist may be bad. Either way, I think that we need to think logically about this situation in giving the governor the ultimate power.”
House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams said she respects Deal’s approach but believes the constitutional amendment is too broad. Details about what constitutes “failing,” or how schools could exit the district might be altered later through legislation rather than the steeper approval of a constitutional change, she said.
Under the system, the governor would be responsible for appointing the new superintendent, state school board members and state charter commission members who would have the only authority to act in schools taken over, she said.
“We have never before vested every vestige of authority in a single person with something as grave and important as the future of our children,” Abrams said.
Efforts Wednesday to reach Sen. Butch Miller, R-Gainesville, who sponsored the measure, for comment were unsuccessful.