By Natalie Simms
Early voting is under way in Georgia and as voters will find a list of proposed constitutional amendments on the bottom of the ballot. None have drawn more controversy than Amendment 1, which would create the “Opportunity School District,” a state agency that would “intervene” or as critics say “takeover” failing schools. This amendment would make a change to the state constitution. Opponents and proponents have strong feelings about what exactly this change would accomplish.
What will the amendment do?
On the ballot, the referendum states “Shall the Constitution of Georgia be amended to allow the state to intervene in chronically failing public schools in order to improve student performance?”
If passed, the “Opportunity School District” would be created under the Office of Student Achievement within the Governor’s office. The OSD would have a new superintendent who would be appointed by the governor and confirmed by the State Senate. He or she would answer only to the governor. This OSD and Office of Student Achievement would be totally separate from the Georgia Department of Education.
According to the legislation bill (Senate Bill 133), the district would be authorized to assume supervision of public elementary and secondary schools that are qualifying. A qualifying school is any school that earns a rating of ‘F’ for three consecutive years on the current measuring system, the Georgia Department of Education’s College and Career Ready Performance Index.This index gives each school a score from 0 to 110 points based on graduation rates, attendance and test scores on state standardized tests. Any school scoring below a 60 is considered failing. According to the 2015 CCRPI, there were 127 schools on the failing list accounting for some 67,924 students.
It’s important to note that there currently aren’t any schools in Northwest Georgia (specifically in Floyd, Bartow, Polk or Gordon counties) on the list. School districts with the largest number of schools on the list include DeKalb County with 28; Atlanta Public Schools with 22; and Richmond County with 19. You can see the list here.
The OSD superintendent would pick the schools to be included in the district, up to 20 schools each year with no more than 100 schools in the district at any one time. The school selection process would include a public hearing to allow for parent and community input before the final selection is made.
Once selected, the district superintendent would then select one of four options:
- Directly manage the school
- Share governance with local school board “pursuant to a contract in which local board of education operates the school and OSD superintendent has the authority to direct changes to be made at the school.”
- Convert the school to a charter school under the State Charter Schools Commission
- Close the school entirely and reassign students to a non-qualifying school within the local school system. The school could not be re-used for three years.
Schools will remain in the OSD for a minimum of 5 years and up to 10 years max, exiting only after they remain above failing for three consecutive years. Improved schools will return to local school board control, unless they were converted to a charter school.
As far as financing goes, local taxpayers will continue to pay a per-student amount to support the school, meaning the money goes with the child. The OSD may also withhold up to 3 percent for administration costs. The General Assembly also may appropriate additional fund to be allocated among the OSD at the discretion of the superintendent. Private funds also may be solicited and accepted by the OSD to support schools according to the bill.
Why vote YES?
Gov. Nathan Deal and proponents says this plan was developed because these particular school systems are failing students.
“It comes out of concern over any child not being able to reach their maximum potential in Georgia public schools,” says Rep. Katie Dempsey (R-Rome), who supports the amendment.
“Many students feel failure because of where they live. There are some smaller counties in our state that only have one elementary or one secondary school. We have to look beyond what exists and realize that for any number of reasons a school may consistently fail and we need to address the issue and help. Doing the same thing is not working. So yes, this is a bold and courageous step.”
Dempsey says while our area of the state is “blessed” with good school systems, that’s not the case on other areas.
“There are certain pockets in our state where there are parents who do not engage with the schools, where there is a lot of poverty. The fastest way to fight poverty is for the child to receive an education. In many homes, there are parents who can’t read…it’s time to be focused on the child and break those cycles,” she says.
Dempsey sees the OSD as an opportunity to give these struggling schools a fresh start.
“These are age-old problems … children in these schools are stressed for any number of reasons…school atmosphere, attendance, grades…the whole systemic climate isn’t working and they need a chance for fresh start with fresh eyes. The limiting factors they have need to be removed,” she says.
The ultimate goal of education is getting students to be ready to be viable contributing citizens where they live. Dempsey feels the OSD will be another resource to help students succeed and to improve the dropout rate.
“Opportunities are there not for each and every school system to ask for help from the State Board of Education. There are many factors that lead a school to this point (failing) that are beyond our control. Many things are not working but if there is something else available, we need to try it,” she says.
“We have taken the best ideas from what other states have done to create our plan. It is not exactly like anyone else’s. What if it passes but doesn’t work? Then we will try something else that meets the needs of these students where they are. Education is important, it matters, a large amount of the money in the state budget is spent on education…this is just another tool when others seem to not work.”
Critics argue that removing local control and giving it to the state will be more detrimental to these schools. Dempsey says there will be some local input on a local council made of parents, community business members, teachers and principals, similar to the charter school model.
“The reporting data for these schools goes straight to the OSD superintendent and governor. The accountability will be so important. The superintendent will be charged with a huge amount of responsibility,” she says.
“I hope Georgia citizens will consider it (amendment) because is not just about us. I feel very strongly we need to continue to seek ways to improve and for schools that don’t have the resources, we need to try something different.”
The group ‘Georgia Leads on Education’ supports the amendment and has a website with frequently asked questions about the proposal. http://www.gaopportunity.org/
Why vote NO?
There are a number of opponents against the proposal including members of Rome City and Floyd County board of education, school superintendents and several state teacher organizations including the Georgia Association of Educators and Georgia Parent Teacher Association (PTA). It is also important to note both candidates for Floyd Board of Education (District 5), Melinda Jeffers and Joyce Mink, are both opposed to the measure.
“I support local control of schools because local school boards, teachers and parents know the unique needs of each school. There are plenty of success stories where the Georgia Department of Education intervened in failing schools around the state with cooperation and contributions from local citizens. The question that has to be asked is: Why aren’t the lessons learned from these successful interventions being used instead of creating a whole new government agency that duplicates the work that should be done by the Georgia Department of Education and the state board that oversees it?,” says Dr. John Jackson, superintendent of Floyd County Schools.
Faith Collins, chair of Rome City Schools’ Board of Education agrees.
“I do not support the ODS for many reasons including the College Career Ready Performance Index used to determine OSD eligibility is inconsistent. It has already been changed several times since implementation. Parents loose access to locally elected school boards. The OSD is accountable only to the sitting governor. The OSD gives the state control over local tax dollars and local facilities,” she says.
There is one Floyd County School, Coosa Middle, and two Rome City Schools, Main and North Heights elementaries, that previously have been on the failing school list for only year. Jackson says changes have been happening at Coosa Middle to improve the scores.
“Under the leadership of Principal Vondell Ringer, changes have already happened at the school including increased time for teachers and administrators to collaborate around improvements. That in itself will yield results as we empower teachers at the school to have more ‘say’ in the direction of their school,” he says.
For Rome City Schools, “We have put additional resources for added staff. We have purchased a program called ‘Map’ which Measures Academic Progress to give us realistic data throughout the year. We are also doing target instruction,” Collins says.
Looking statewide, Karen Solheim, president of the Georgia Association of Educators-Retired organization, says the OSD is not good for Georgia schools for a number of reasons.
“The OSD would create another level of bureaucracy on the state level. At present, an elected and thus accountable superintendent is housed in the state Department of Education (DOE),” she says. “Amendment 1’s passing would allow the governor to appoint an OSD superintendent who would be accountable to the governor, housed in the Governor’s Office of Student Achievement. This appointee would be chosen by the governor and would not even have to have any educational credentials.
“At present, closing achievement gaps in Georgia’s public schools is already being addressed through the DOE’s Priority Schools and Focus Schools programs with the elected state school superintendent accountable to the people of the state of Georgia who elected him. The OSD would take away local control and takes away local tax revenue and places it in the hands of the state.”
Solheim says the ‘failing’ term is somewhat of a misnomer.
“Schools are designated as ‘failing’ based solely on their scores on the College and Career Ready Performance Index, a measure never designed to measure the success or failure of schools but rather on how well students are prepared for college and careers,” she says. “These 127 who have received the designation of ‘failing’ represent less than 4 percent of the students in public education in Georgia and less than 6 percent of the schools.
“In addition, several components of a school’s CCRPI score–such as graduation rate and attendance–seem to be directly out of a school’s control, and a great deal of weight is given to students’ test scores on standardized tests, some of which have been thrown out over the past couple years to count for the students themselves because of irregularities in testing procedures. However, these same student scores are being used in teacher evaluations and in CCRPI scores for schools.”
Solheim believes the best way to improve struggling schools is to provide schools more money.
“One option would be to fund fully public education. The current state funding formula, part of the 1985 Quality Basic Education Act, has never been fully funded. One of the results of not fully funding public education in Georgia is larger class sizes, obviously an impediment to student learning,” she says. “Local control is not what has caused schools not to be as successful as they could be. Under-funding of public education across the state has.”
Aside from the loss of local control and local tax dollars, what alarms opponents is the ability of future legislation to change the rules of the OSD.
“What is scariest about Amendment 1 is, with its passage and the language inserted into the Georgia constitution, the ability of a future legislature to change the rules about how the state takeover of Georgia local public schools (OSD) would operate. At present, via the passage of Senate Bill 133, a set of rules and procedures, such as up to 20 qualifying schools per year up to 100 in all can be a part of the OSD, is in place.
“Passage of Amendment 1 gives carte blanche for any future legislature to throw out any of these rules and to institute any entirely different set of operating instructions. For example, instead of the 60-or-below-for-three-consecutive-years-on-the-CCPRI criteria, the ‘magic number’ could be 75 or below or 5 percent growth in standardized scores; those individuals who currently are not worried about the passage of Amendment 1 affecting their neighborhood schools might then be more concerned.”