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Our Views: Should more clout be flowing to Capitol?
Deals plan to have state take over failing schools could undermine local autonomy
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To send a letter to the editor, learn the letters policy fill out a form online or send to letters@gainesvilletimes.com. The Times editorial board includes Publisher Charlotte Atkins, General Manager Norman Baggs and Editor Keith Albertson.

For decades, conservative leaders in Washington and Atlanta have preached the goal of decentralizing government by returning power from federal to state and state to local, giving average citizens more direct control of their daily lives.

But nearly halfway through this year’s session of the General Assembly, efforts to reform two of Georgia’s crucial needs, roads and schools, seem to be headed in the opposite direction.

On transportation, state leaders proposed a fuel excise tax to replace sales taxes cities and counties rely on for revenue. The bill being debated in the legislature has yet to address those concerns, nor have lawmakers provided many details on where or how that extra money would be spent.

Now an initiative to help education is taking a similar tack, taking the wheel out of local hands in favor of more state control.

Gov. Nathan Deal’s proposal would have the state assume management of the state’s worst schools in a statewide Opportunity School District. Beginning in 2017, a state-level superintendent would be chosen by the governor to oversee schools rated as persistently failing by test scores and other measures. The superintendent would have several options for turning them around, including direct management, working with local school boards, conversion to charter schools or closure.

Schools in this “district” would be limited to 100, with up to 20 added each year. Currently, 141 would qualify for such action, according to the governor’s office. Those chosen would remain under state supervision for five to 10 years.

Funding would come from the usual allotment of state revenue, private donations and additional money designated by the legislature. But up to 3 percent of a district’s state funds could be withheld to pay the additional administrative costs.

The plan would be in the form of a constitutional amendment, meaning it must first pass both chambers of the legislature by two-thirds majorities, then go before voters in a referendum next year.

A similar plan was enacted in Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina. There also is a precedent in Georgia; in 2013, Deal replaced six members of the DeKalb County school board when that district was faced with a loss of accreditation.

But as lawmakers begin to consider the plan, they need to keep the horse before the cart and first address school funding. That starts with efforts to rework the state’s 30-year-old Quality Basic Education formula aimed at increasing funds for districts in poor, mostly rural areas that lack the tax revenue base to support them.

Deal plans to increase school spending in this year’s budget after doing the same last year, ending several years of austerity cuts during the recession. That’s a good start. But until all schools receive a basic level of funding, it’s hard to judge them accurately on classroom results. Only when the money is in place can a valid assessment be made.

Even then, some lawmakers are trying to steer school funds in other directions. One plan proposed in the House would channel public school money into accounts parents could spend on private schools, a plan many educators fear would siphon more out their budgets, especially in poorer districts. Many also say channeling public funds toward privatized charter school companies leads to less accountability overall.

Yet it’s not always about money. The key to improving schools is to identify their unique problems and not implement a one-size-fits-all approach from hundreds of miles away. Those closer to the problem would seem to be best qualified to address it.

A state takeover of failing schools into a “super district” could undermine such local control. The movement toward charter schools and other innovative techniques has been aimed at creating more autonomy, giving educators room to experiment and offering teachers and parents more options. Any state-level oversight needs to maintain that flexibility and keep parents, administrators and teachers in the loop.

One also has to ask why a new “super superintendent” is needed to run failing schools. Georgia already has a statewide superintendent in place, elected every four years to manage the education department. Hiring yet another high-salaried bureaucrat would create a parallel management system, perhaps designed to further downsize a post that has lost influence over the years due to political differences.

Short of putting such a “czar” on place, the state is within its rights to be proactive and assume the role of adviser to help failing schools and rescue students trapped in them. Leaders at the Capitol should involve elected officials from school boards, county and city governments to form action plans for schools that need additional funding or new ideas to improve. Local residents should be given full input into those decisions.

If and when further state intervention becomes inevitable, as in the DeKalb case, it should be used a last resort. School boards should be able to launch a series of improvement steps on their own before that occurs. The “nuclear option” should only be a last-gasp effort when all other attempts have failed.

We hope legislators will consider all these concerns as the proposal moves through their chambers, and voters will do the same if it goes before them. Efforts to limit local influence on any issue should be greeted skeptically as a potential power grab by leaders who, we seem to recall, once said they felt the same way before assuming majority control.

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