TLANTA (AP) — The Georgia House approved Gov. Nathan Deal's plan allowing a state takeover of schools dubbed "chronically failing" on Wednesday, setting up a statewide vote in 2016.
The constitutional amendment and accompanying legislation were last-minute additions to the day's House calendar. Both pieces of legislation have passed the state Senate, with the amendment receiving exactly the two-thirds support needed for a constitutional change.
The House easily passed the amendment, 121-47, before a lunch break. The accompanying bill, which was not voted on during the morning session, requires a simple majority to pass.
Under Deal's plan, an appointed superintendent accountable to the governor 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 total in future years.
Schools would become eligible if they score below 60 for three years in a row on the state's index for measuring student performance and growth. Deal's office estimates nearly 140 schools would be eligible based on recent results.
Supporters on the House floor largely avoided detailed discussion of how the district would work and urged members to let the concept be decided by voters.
"This legislation will act as a challenge to those local boards, to say 'If you don't get your house in order then we will,'" said sponsoring Rep. Christian Coomer, R-Cartersville and one of Deal's floor leaders.
Three Democrats were among those speaking in support, though the caucus earlier this week decided to take a position against the amendment. Rep. Stacey Evans, D-Smyrna, called it "imperfect but a very good measure."
"If we wait, students will sit longer in schools that are failing them," Evans said. "How long can we wait? How much time? Parents all across this state are waiting."
Organizations representing teachers, school boards and other education stakeholders largely oppose the plan. Members voting against the amendment Wednesday said it gives a governor too much power over education in the state —whoever that may be.
"I worry about what that a future governor may look like," conservative Republican Rep. David Stover of Newnan said. "Now for me, a Democrat in charge may be bad. For me, a Republican who's an anarchist may be bad. Either way, I think that we need to think logically about this situation in giving the governor the ultimate power."
House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams said she respects Deal's approach but believes the constitutional amendment is too broad. Details about what constitutes "failing," or how schools could exit the district might be altered later through legislation rather than the steeper approval required for a constitutional change, she said.
Under the system, the governor would be responsible for appointing the new superintendent, state school board members and state charter commission members who would have the only authority to act in schools taken over, she said.
"We have never before vested every vestige of authority in a single person with something as grave and important as the future of our children," Abrams said.
The enabling legislation, which includes nearly all the details of how the new district would function, would require Senate agreement after a House committee made some minor changes.