Governor’s school amendment a bad deal for Georgia

rex hussmannOn Nov. 8, voters will be asked to accept or reject Amendment One to the Georgia Constitution, the so-called Opportunity School District amendment.

The proposed ballot question asks: “Shall the Constitution of Georgia be amended to allow the state to intervene in chronically failing schools in order to improve student performance? Answer yes or no. The recommended vote is No. Gov. Nathan Deal is the most vocal supporter of the amendment.

If Amendment One is approved, “failing” schools could become part of a separate statewide school district, overseen by an all-powerful superintendent appointed by the governor and accountable solely to the governor.

This appointed education czar will have total control over those struggling schools compelled to join the new district.

He or she can fire all school employees and will have total control of the schools’ finances. The local school board will have no voice on how these schools are operated and how local tax revenue is allocated.

Rev. Chester Ellis, pastor of St. Paul Missionary Church in Savannah, reported that Deal recently convened a private meeting with a small group of African-American ministers to seek their support.

During the meeting, the governor was asked to provide specifics for his Opportunity School District plan. He replied that his plan is modeled after the Louisiana Recovery School District and the Tennessee Achievement School District.

When challenged by one of the ministers that these two plans have failed to accomplish their achievement goals, Deal replied: “We are going to look at what they did wrong, and correct their mistakes so that ours will be right. You know, we have to do something. We are willing to try this; and then if it doesn’t work, we are willing to work on what doesn’t work and straighten it out.”

The governor’s response sounds more like a gamble than a plan.

For the past year Deal has vigorously bragged about the “stunning” success of the Louisiana model, but his advocacy for change has resembled more of a public relations campaign than a solid, evidence-based proposal.

The Louisiana model has produced several upgraded schools with higher test scores, but the overwhelming majority of New Orleans schools still languish.

Parents complain of all day commutes, overcrowding, bewildering enrollment procedures, high rates of push out, and difficulty in finding schools able to serve students with special needs.

The new power structure excludes parents. Principals are more powerful than ever, functioning like CEOs who report exclusively to hand-picked corporate boards.

“There is no place for New Orleanians at the table” is the lament of parent-advocate, Ashana Bigard.

Because there is no opportunity for a professional career in the classroom, teacher turnover is staggering.

The Tennessee experiment has proven equally disappointing.

The tragedy of this radical, misguided attack on traditional education in Georgia is that there are models of reform within traditional school systems that boast remarkable turnarounds, but which are being totally ignored by the governor and his cronies.

One such case is the Cincinnati school system.

In 2002, the Cincinnati Public Schools were rated an “academic emergency”. However, Cincinnati was blessed with visionary leaders who made excellent education a top priority and knew that success in education could not be bought on the cheap.

City leaders created local Decision Making Committees at each school across the district as a way to engage a cross-section of parents, business leaders, social service providers, educators, principals, school staff, and residents in each school community.

School changes were funded through a $480 million local tax levy, supplemented with a State contribution of $205 million. The city committed to a decade long $1 billion rebuilding project.

To date, 34 of Cincinnati’s 55 schools have been transformed into Community Learning Centers. In addition to daily classroom instruction, these community-based schools provide health services, counseling, after-school and youth development programs, nutrition classes, the arts and more.

The results are clear. Cincinnati Public Schools now rank among the top 2 percent of Ohio districts for students’ learning growth. Attendance rates increased from 88 percent in 2000 to 95 percent in 2012. The district’s graduation rate rose from 51 percent in 2000 to 80 percent in 2011.

The Cincinnati model can be duplicated in Georgia without turning our schools and tax dollars over to private, for-profit business enterprises.

For some reason the Governor has decided that Atlanta lawmakers and out-of-town corporate business people know more about what’s good for educating Georgia’s children than parents, local community leaders and professional educators.

We can do better. Vote No to Amendment One.

R. Rex Hussmann moved to Georgia in 1970. He served as chaplain at Northwest Georgia Regional Hospital for 18 years and writes for the website MOVE GEORGIA FORWARD. Readers may contact him at MoveGeorgiaForward@gmail.com.

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