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Gov.'s failing-school overhaul bill brings caution
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Governor Nathan Deal’s recently proposed “Opportunity District,” where the state would take over failing schools and place them into a new state-wide district under the Governor’s office, drew an apprehensive reception from the Rockdale school board Thursday.

Similar initiatives have been underway in Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina and in Tennessee, though Rockdale County Public Schools Superintendent Richard Autry said this proposal seemed to lean more towards Tennessee’s “Achievement District” model.

The bill, unveiled earlier this week, would apply to schools that score less than 60 for three consecutive years on the College and Career Readiness Index “school report card.” Currently, that’s about 144 schools in the state; none are in Rockdale County Public Schools. 

If it passes the General Assembly this year and passes a state-wide constitutional amendment referendum on the 2016 ballot, it would start in 2017. 

The new district would accept up to 20 schools per year and would govern no more than 100 at any given time. Schools would stay in the district for at least five years but no more than 10 years.

A superintendent appointed by and reporting to the governor, not the Ga. Department of Education, would choose one of four options for each school in the new district: manage the school directly, share management with a local school board, convert the school to a charter school or close the school. A nonprofit board would be appointed by that superintendent to oversee each school.

Autry explained that there would be funding implications for local school boards.

Financially, the schools in the Opportunity School District would receive a share of local tax dollars and state funding, based on the number of students enrolled. Private donations would be accepted for the schools and the General Assembly could set aside additional money for the schools. 

The new district schools could purchase the services of local school districts for routine operations. While the state would pay for routine maintenance and repairs of the new district’s schools, local school districts would be obligated to provide for extensive repairs of those schools and any capital projects.  

Deal said in a released statement, “While Georgia boasts many schools that achieve academic excellence every year, we still have too many schools where students have little hope of attaining the skills they need to succeed in the workforce or in higher education. We have a moral duty to do everything we can to help these children. Failing schools keep the cycle of poverty spinning from one generation to the next. Education provides the only chance for breaking that cycle. When we talk about helping failing schools, we’re talking about rescuing children. I stand firm on the principle that every child can learn, and I stand equally firm in the belief that the status quo isn’t working.”

The proposal drew cautious reactions from school board members at the Thursday work session. 

Board member Sharon Pharr expressed concern with the direction of the proposals. “This is the centralization of education,” said Pharr. “It’s putting education in very few hands”

 “It looks like there’s kind of a plan,” she continued. “Now they’re saying with the Georgia Milestones they’re expecting scores are going to drop… They’re looking for schools that are going to fail.”

Member Wales Barksdale gave his reading of the proposed bill. “Private donations would be readily accepted. If you think on the charter school amendment, the Walton foundation gave three quarters of a million dollars to pass the charter school amendment.  We’re trying to get tax dollars into private corporations for education.

“It’s centralization, plus directing money into private hands to provide education.”

He continued, “I do not think the charter schools will provide the needs of all the special education students and they will be left to the backs of the local school boards. 

“It’s so far away from the idea in this country that localities get to provide education for students. It’s taking that away one step at a time.”

“I believe in local board control,” Autry reiterated for the record. 

However, he added, “I want to wait and see how this rolls out.” 

Other bills reviewed at the Thursday night school board work session included:

SR 138 – State-wide ballot referendum that proposes the superintendent be an elected position and school boards be appointed by the grand jury

HB 100 – change the age eligibility to start enrolling in Pre-K and Kindergarten 

HB 243 – Education Savings Account, where parents could use state funds for educational expenses for private schools, home schooling and tutoring.