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Gov. Deal to sign Opportunity School District legislation
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ATLANTA (AP) — Gov. Nathan Deal said he plans to sign legislation Tuesday to allow a state takeover of "chronically failing" schools and set up a statewide vote in 2016 to authorize the move.

The law, the governor's top priority to begin his second term, lays out the framework for a so-called statewide Opportunity School District should voters approve a constitutional amendment in 2016 approving the takeover.

Deal also said Monday that he will sign the Utopian Academy for the Arts bill that prevents local authorities from obstructing the opening of a state-chartered school.

Under the governor's plan, an appointed superintendent accountable to him could add up to 20 schools to the district each year and have the power to close, convert them into charter schools or overhaul management.

The district could not include more than 100 schools.

Under Deal's plan, a new state entity under his control would be able to take over failing schools and partner with private companies to turn them into charter schools.

The proposed constitutional amendment passed the House 121-47, crossing the two-thirds threshold with one vote to spare. The enabling legislation includes details of how the new district would function.

Deal said earlier in a written statement that he thinks voters will support the idea "because they want these children to have a chance in life, they want them to get an education, they want them to have good jobs, support their families and be productive, law-abiding citizens."

The plan was mostly opposed by school boards and organizations representing teachers. Some legislative members argued the amendment gives a governor too much power over education.

"We tried our best to improve the bill, without much success," said Tim Callahan of the 86,000 member Professional Association of Georgia Educators. "Our concern is it's the wrong prescription for the problem. We believe children who are struggling in our schools, those struggles are caused by a broad spectrum of poverty-related issues. A simple change in management isn't going to help them very much."

Schools would be eligible if they scored below 60 for three years in a row on the state's index for measuring student performance and growth.

Deal said "we have both a moral duty and a self-serving interest in rescuing children" in failing schools. "Every child should have a fair shot at doing better than their parents before them, and we as a society benefit if more Georgians have the education and job skills needed to attract high-paying jobs."

The bill gives him the power to fire principals, transfer teachers and change what students are learning at failing schools.

Kevin Pearson of the Georgia Association of Educators said "improving Georgia's public schools to ensure successful student outcomes is a shared value for all public education stakeholders" but that "a punitive approach to schools in distress creates a climate that is toxic for children and the community."

He said the law "fails the collaborative approach and in no way considers social and economic influences in the affected communities."

The effort is considered Deal's most significant legislative victory since his election in 2010.