By allowing ads to appear on this site, you support the local businesses who, in turn, support great journalism.
Editorial: State should put students before politics
House plan to help struggling schools is a good 1st step; now leaders need to get on same page
Placeholder Image

Follow legislation: You can track state bills up for consideration, plus find contact information for local legislators, at www.legis.ga.gov

Georgia voters rejected a proposed amendment to the constitution last fall that would have allowed the state to assume control of struggling schools. So lawmakers literally went back to school, and the drawing board, to craft a Plan B this year.

They seem to have learned most of the lessons from last year’s failed plan that led to its defeat — concerns over duplicate management efforts, grabbing local tax funds to pay for an “opportunity school district” and dealing local school boards out of decision-making.

A proposal in the General Assembly passed the House by a 138-37 vote with bipartisan support, giving it a decent chance of passage in the Senate. It addresses the weaknesses of the previous plan by partnering with school boards to fix struggling schools, giving them a chance to turn things around before the state takes more drastic action.

It would leave local tax dollars untouched, in particular not steering tax revenue toward for-profit charter school companies that contribute heavily to political campaigns. A separate bill aims to address the underlying poverty that causes many schools to fall short, which is vital.

House Bill 338, authored by Dawsonville Republican Rep. Kevin Tanner, would have the state school board appoint an administrator to oversee failing school efforts, an end run around the state superintendent. And deciding which measures to use in evaluating school performance remains a contentious issue.

But taken as a whole, the bill at least keeps the pressure on. Everyone agrees the state can’t sit by idly and let students slip through the cracks without taking action.

In the process of getting the bill passed, a lack of consensus between Gov. Nathan Deal and Superintendent Richard Woods has emerged over policy, which may explain why the governor prefers an appointed czar rather than leave the task to the elected school chief.

It was recently learned Deal sent a letter to Woods bluntly stating the number of failing schools has increased on the superintendent’s watch and wanted to know his plan to address the problem. Woods responded he was waiting to see if last year’s amendment passed before he took action. The exchange was further evidence the education department and the governor’s office aren’t on the same page in crafting school policy.

Such a tug-of-war between governors and superintendents isn’t new. Roy Barnes and Linda Schrenko feuded openly, with the school board caught in the middle. More recently, Deal and former superintendent John Barge clashed on school policy during the governor’s first term, leading Barge to run against him in the next primary.

Such conflicts may be unavoidable. When candidates for governor seek office, school policy is a key element of their campaigns; after all, education takes half of the state budget. Meanwhile, a superintendent hopeful runs his or her own race, often with a different set of priorities. Once in office, those ideas don’t always mesh into a cohesive strategy.

At the federal level, and in 38 of 50 states, the school chief is appointed rather than elected. Georgia is one of nine states that elects a superintendent but allows the governor to appoint the school board. This may be sparking the idea of tinkering with school leadership at both the state and local levels, as evidenced by a proposal in this year’s legislative session.

Last week, a Senate panel rejected a plan by Toccoa Republican Sen. John Wilkinson that would change the nature of choosing local school boards, allowing voters to choose a superintendent who would in turn select the board, rather than the reverse now in place since a 1992 amendment. The debate is over how best to select qualified education professionals to enact policy and manage budgets rather than let politics be the deciding factor.

In most instances, it’s best to leave such decisions up to voters. But when such a system in place doesn’t work well, it’s time to rethink it.

A plan to take the state superintendent post off the ballot was floated a few years ago in the legislature. The plan would allow the school board to appoint the superintendent, and since the board is seated by the governor, could result in a more unified policy team.

The other state constitutional offices also could be appointed, though none involve the level of attention and importance as the school chief. Can voters really know who’s best suited to lead the insurance, labor, state, justice or agriculture departments? Each post comes with specific qualifications that some who seek those offices may not possess, leaving voters to pick winners based on political skills rather than expertise.

Similarly, a school superintendent with experience in education should be a bottom-line requirement. Governors’ terms in office can hinge on school policy, so it isn’t unreasonable for them to seek control of those decisions.

Removing the superintendent post from the ballot would limit voter choices to a point, but that accountability would merely shift to the top of the ballot. If school reforms aren’t successful, the buck stops at the top of the ticket. Otherwise it’s too easy for a governor and superintendent to blame each other for failure, leaving voters to figure out who’s right. And ultimately, the big losers are students who don’t get the attention they deserve while politicians argue.

The bill now in the legislature is a clear upgrade over last year’s amendment, and may be improved as it moves through the Senate. If the legislature can pass a bill that helps struggling districts with the funding, innovation and leadership they need, forges partnerships with local parents and school officials and leaves tax dollars to be spent locally, it’s worthy of a shot. Georgia’s public schools need attention, money and fresh ideas, not the back of our hand or a scheme to rob from public coffers for private gain.

With that done, lawmakers might then again consider whether changing the superintendent from an elected to an appointed post in the future would allow governors to put a unified team in place to improve schools, along with the added responsibility to deliver results.

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.

Regional events