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Dick Yarbrough: Can the school amendments plan really fix failing schools?
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In Georgia, it is a political fact of life that whatever the governor wants — no matter who occupies the seat — the governor usually gets. That is because the office controls a lot of money and patronage and can dispense or withhold either, depending on whether or not you support or oppose the governor.

Gov. Nathan Deal wants passage of Amendment 1, which will create an Opportunity School District. Approval of the amendment by voters Nov. 8 would allow the state to take over control of schools deemed to be perennially failing. The amendment has become a test of wills between the governor and the education community, and as of this writing, passage is no sure thing.

With the Opportunity School District in place, the governor would have the power to appoint a superintendent separate from the state school superintendent, who is elected by voters. The OSD superintendent could waive Georgia Board of Education rules, reorganize or fire staff and change school budgets and curriculum. The state also could convert OSD schools to nonprofit or for-profit charter schools or close them under certain conditions.

Groups like the Georgia PTA consider the measure draconian and are in total opposition. The organization voted 633-0 at its summer convention to oppose Amendment 1. That is no small thing. The group claims some 250,000 members and is a force to be reckoned with.

The president of the Georgia PTA, Lisa-Marie Haygood, told me, “The issue isn’t failing schools, it is failing to fix the problems around them such as poverty, child abuse and hunger.” She says every school on the governor’s list of potentially failing schools has over 80 percent of its students living in poverty and Amendment 1 does nothing to change that.

She calls the Opportunity School District nothing more than a “power grab” and a big step toward privatizing public education.

The Committee to Keep Georgia Schools Local, a coalition of parents, teachers and organizations, including the Southern Education Foundation, the Georgia Association of Educators, the Georgia AFL-CIO and the Concerned Black Clergy of Atlanta, is fighting the amendment vigorously. “We are united is our opposition to a statewide political appointee put in by politicians bought with campaign contributions from for-profit, out-of-state corporations,” said Michelle Davis, the organization’s public relations manager. Speaking against Amendment 1 last week were former U.N. Ambassador Andy Young and baseball Hall of Famer Hank Aaron.

The Professional Association of Georgia Educators, the state’s largest education association with more than 90,000 members, says Amendment 1 is reinventing the wheel. PAGE executive director Allene Magill tells members the state Department of Education already possesses the power to force change on underperforming schools. “So,” she asked, “if the state already has a lever to effect change in these schools from a constitutionally-empowered agency with an elected leader (the Department of Education), why does another branch of government seek to override it? Why would a governor want to wrest control from local boards of education and communities? It’s a motivation as old as mankind: power, control and money.”

Proponents of Amendment 1 accuse national teacher unions of fueling the opposition. Indeed, the National Education Association, through its local affiliate, the GAE, has played a major role in funding television advertising against passage of the amendment.

But the opposition goes deeper than that. More than 36 school boards across the state have passed resolutions opposing OSD, almost all of whom would not be affected by passage of the amendment.

I don’t like the fact that pro-amendment advocates such as Georgia Leads are shielded by law from disclosing who makes up their supporters. If an Opportunity School District is such a great thing, why not come out and say who you are? Why the secrecy?

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has done a good job of ferreting out some of the advocates, including my alma mater, AT&T and the Atlanta Chamber of Commerce, as well as Home Depot co-founder Bernie Marcus. Also, Students First, a deep-pocketed California-based lobbying group which recently merged with Washington-based 50Can is pushing hard for passage. (And proponents want to talk about “outside influence”?)

My problem isn’t with the concept of focusing on failing schools but in not addressing the issues outside the school that contribute to the problem. Will Amendment 1 do that? Or is it the first step in privatizing public education and letting for-profit management companies get their nose under the education tent?

Stay tuned. This fight is far from over.

Dick Yarbrough is a North Georgia resident whose column regularly appears Saturdays. Contact him at P.O. Box 725373, Atlanta, GA 31139; via his website; or Facebook.

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