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Editorial: State amendment offers a top-down school fix
Opportunity district vote could duplicate bureaucracy, undermine local jurisdiction
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Alan Oliveros, 8, and Damian Ponce, 8, take turns reading Friday at Fair Street International Baccalaureate World School in Gainesville. Fair Street has a new literacy framework this year with a goal of improving every child's reading by three grade levels in the next two years. - photo by Erin O. Smith

Amid the usual spate of well-publicized names and races on the Nov. 8 ballot, voters across Georgia will choose among four constitutional amendments they can pass into law.

The first and most controversial would grant state control of schools deemed to be “chronically failing.” It would allow the governor to create “opportunity school districts” for schools that fall below a score of 60 on the state’s College and Career Ready Performance Index over a three-year span. The state would assume the school’s share of state and local tax revenues and make decisions aimed at improving students’ performance.

The governor’s appointed superintendent could select up to 20 schools each year, a maximum of 100 at any one time, and convert them into charters, public or private; close them, in some cases; and overhaul their management.

Models for this plan originated in Louisiana and Tennessee, with varying results. Its backers, including Gov. Nathan Deal, believe children and parents shouldn’t be trapped in failing schools without recourse. Many believe the mere threat of such a takeover will force school districts to take the necessary measures to boost student performance before such a move is needed. The plan’s backers also say it would increase local and parental participation in school improvement, not replace it.

Opponents include educators and related groups who believe it would usurp powers granted by voters to school boards and remove local control and money. No such schools are currently at risk in our area, though some are perilously close. Most in Georgia that rank as failing are in impoverished urban and rural areas.

We agree no child or parent should suffer a subpar education while local officials twiddle their thumbs. But evidence shows the root problem in most cases not to be leadership but resources, which can’t be fixed by assuming management and dollars. Before seizing control, it seems wise to diagnose the problem and evaluate what procedures, resources and results the Department of Education has applied to boost performance.

Before voting on this amendment, consider these factors:

• Local control. Board members are elected by their neighbors and answerable to parents and taxpayers. A state-appointed superintendent would “serve at the pleasure of the governor,” according to the wording in the amendment, and not be directly responsible to those served in the districts. Successful schools need strong community involvement to hold leaders accountable. That seems less likely with a state-level appointee making decisions from Atlanta.

 Grading. Evaluating schools on capricious standardized test scores is iffy. As the state moves from one set of exams to another, there is no consensus on which provides the most accurate reading of student performance. And numbers on bubble sheets can’t weigh human and environmental factors.

 Resources. Many low-income districts take in inadequate tax revenue to meet schools’ needs and struggle to recruit and keep top teachers, particularly in poor rural areas. In urban districts where populations and tax dollars are greater, many low-income families can’t create an ideal learning atmosphere, often due to language barriers. Addressing those issues would have the most effect in improving schools, but economic and cultural disparities are much harder to solve.

 Bureaucracy. No one knows the true cost or scope of this plan until it’s implemented. It would create parallel agencies: the existing education department that already accounts for 40 percent of budget spending, and a shadow department of schools that could duplicate service, staffing and expenditures. Dual leaders could end up battling for control, which may be why the current state superintendent has not endorsed the amendment.

If the state feels obligated to oversee failing schools, why not use the elected superintendent, his department’s infrastructure and budget already in place to fulfill that task?

 Politics. This option puts too much power in the hands of the school czar and governor. Even if you like and respect Deal, he’ll only be governor for two more years. Do we trust this authority in the hands of unknown future leaders?

 Amendments. The constitutional amendment process is overused and often deceptive. As many have noted, while asking the courts to intercede, the wording on the ballot was crafted by lawmakers seeking passage and is easily misinterpreted; it states a yes vote “provides greater flexibility and state accountability to fix failing schools through increasing community involvement.”

Georgia’s constitution already has too many amendments (77 since 1983; the U.S. Constitution ratified in 1789 has but 27). Many are created because legislators are unable to reach consensus or unwilling to act on a controversial topic.

n What next? Suppose the plan passes, the state assumes management of these schools and applies remedies, yet achieves no improvement. That was the case in Tennessee, where failing schools haven’t fully turned around. Then where do parents turn? The state would be on the hook for these schools yet school boards would have their hands tied. If elected leaders can’t fix underperforming schools, how will the result be any different for those appointed?

For all these concerns, we urge a “no” vote on Amendment 1. Whatever its fate, we urge legislators to revisit the issue and consider other options to bring officials and parents together to turn around schools. A state takeover should be a last-ditch resort only when local leadership is clearly the problem. Districts making a sincere effort to overcome economic challenges should be given the help and resources they need.

Kids need a good education to succeed in life, and parents need help to make that happen. To accomplish this, smaller, responsive government at the local level would seem to work better than another heavy-handed bureaucracy based in Atlanta.

Share your thoughts on this or any other topic in a a letter to the editor; you can use this form or email to letters@gainesvilletimes.com. The Times editorial board includes General Manager Norman Baggs, Editor Keith Albertson and Managing Editor Shannon Casas, plus community members Susan DeCrescenzo, Cathy Drerup and Brent Hoffman.

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