Don’t look now, but the initiative to deal with low-performing schools in Georgia has taken a big step toward becoming law. Last week, the Georgia House of Representatives passed HB 338 by a vote of 138-37. That is a margin of roughly 73 percent. (You might want to double-check my figures. I am, after all, a product of the public education system in Georgia.) The measure got strong bipartisan support, including Democratic House Minority Leader Stacy Abrams.
The bill now goes to the state Senate and at this writing, I suspect it will pass that body with perhaps only modest modifications.
To refresh your memory, HB 338, authored by Rep. Kevin Tanner, R-Dawsonville, is the phoenix rising out of the ashes of the failed constitutional amendment that went down in flames last November.
That amendment submitted that schools deemed “chronically failing” would be placed in an Opportunity School District under the supervision of an appointed superintendent who would report directly to the governor. That concept didn’t fly with voters, thanks in part to a poorly executed public information campaign.
To the credit of those involved in that debacle, lessons were learned and applied this time around. This effort to deal with low-performing schools proposes a Chief Turnaround Officer, turnaround coaches and an advisory council composed of representatives of the Georgia School Board Association; the Georgia School Superintendents Association; the Professional Association of Georgia Educators; the Georgia Association of Educators; the Georgia Association of Educational Leaders and the Georgia PTA — all major players in the public education arena and all who were opposed to the OSD effort. And, I am happy to report, there is no room in the inn for for-profit charter management companies in this legislation.
The Chief Turnaround Officer will report to the State Board of Education, rather than the governor. That has been a source of some concern to opponents since board members are appointed by the governor. Naysayers also claim that the State Department of Education already has the ability to turn around failing schools and, therefore, legislation is not required. I can’t find any evidence that the department, in fact, has done so. Neither can Gov. Nathan Deal.
The governor fired off a letter to state school superintendent Richard Wood last week asking Wood to supply him with specifics on what the DOE has done to stem the number of “chronically failing schools,” which increased from 127 in school year 2014-2015 to 153 in school year 2015-2016. Gov. Deal said, “I would like to know what actions DOE took during those two school years to reverse this downward spiral of failure. Specifically, what schools did you work with, what measurable results were achieved and how many employees were involved?” The governor added, “I would also like to know what legislative actions you support to improve public education and whether you and the lobbyist for DOE have initiated any proposed legislation to address these concerns.” Gov. Deal requested an “expeditious” response to his letter. I think the governor is telling DOE to put up or shut up.
Most of the groups representing educators give the passage of HB 338 mild and measured applause. If they are listening, I would suggest this train has left the station and they had better get on board.
The education associations need to devote their time, effort and energy instead to derailing a measure much more harmful to the future of public education — a nefarious scheme to increase the cap from $58 million to $100 million to provide for private school scholarships. This scheme not only diverts much-needed revenues from the state budget, it allows parents to cut-and-run from public schools — the very schools we are trying to fix.
The bill, sponsored by Rep. John Carson, R-Cobb County, passed the House and now is in the Senate. I hope wiser heads there will prevail. I do know Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, is a proponent of charter school systems, which he calls “laboratories of innovation” as well as college and career academies. It will be interesting to see if he thinks private school vouchers are compatible with his vision of public education.
The Legislature has taken a major step to deal with what ails our public schools, while at the same time it seems that some legislators are encouraging us to abandon them and get a tax break for our troubles. Think about it: Let’s fix failing public schools while we fail to support Georgia’s public schoolteachers. What a dichotomy.