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Georgia voters will soon decide whether to change their constitution to clear the way for state officials to play a more aggressive role in taking over long-struggling public schools.
The ballot measure—known as Amendment 1—has generated heated debate and created strange political bedfellows, with teachers' unions, the state's school boards' association, the Georgia PTA, and some conservative Republicans lining up against the measure.
On the other side is GOP Gov. Nathan Deal, who proposed and championed a state-run district modeled on Louisiana's Recovery School District and Tennessee's Achievement School District. His allies include the state chamber of commerce, some Democrats, and supporters of charters and school choice.
The state last wrestled with such a contentious education issue in 2012, when another constitutional amendment to establish a state Charter Schools Commission was on the ballot. That measure passed.
While some of the key players and arguments remain the same, more money appears to be pouring in this time around, said Dana Rickman, the policy and research director at the nonpartisan Georgia Partnership for Excellence in Education, which is not taking a position on the ballot measure.
An estimated $3.3 million had been raised through the end of September by groups both supporting and opposing the measure, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. The pro-amendment side has raised $1.2 million toward that effort with contributions from Georgia Leads, a Deal-backed group, the Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce, and 50CAN, an education advocacy group. On the other side, the National Education Association was expected to spend $1.5 million opposing the measure, the paper said.
The newspaper also conducted a poll this month showing that most likely voters are leaning against supporting the measure. In a survey of 1,003 registered voters, 839 of whom were characterized as likely voters, 59 percent were opposed, 34 percent were in favor, and 8 percent were undecided.
Amendment backers say the proposed state-run entity—called the Opportunity School District—would empower the state to "rescue" some 68,000 children from schools that have been failing for at least three years and where local school districts have been slow to take the necessary steps to turn around those schools.
Some opponents see the effort as an attempt to seize local control and tax dollars from districts, and argue Amendment 1's wording on the ballot is vague and misleading.
The unions worry it's an avenue to expand charter schools. Some district officials say they are already working to improve chronically low-performing schools, while school boards and the Georgia PTA object to the use of standardized tests to help determine the schools that would be eligible to be part of the OSD.
"To change the constitution of a state is no small thing," said Helen Minchew, the president of the school board in Richmond County, which passed a nonbinding resolution opposing the OSD. Nineteen of the district's 57 schools meet the eligibility criteria for the OSD. "It's a gigantic step, and it's not something you can just easily go back and change if it looks like it's not working."
Alyssa Botts, a spokeswoman for Opportunity for All Georgia Students, said the OSD intervention is temporary and necessary, not an attempt to usurp local control.
She accused opponents of paying more attention to teachers and administrators who might be affected by the changes and not the children stuck in underperforming schools.
"They are talking about resources, protecting the adults—adults who want to control local tax dollars and adults who don't want to lose jobs for poor performance," Botts said.
The Georgia legislature last year passed two measures that set the ball rolling on the Opportunity School District. One was a resolution to change the constitution to create the district. The other was a bill to allow the formation of the statewide district to take over schools that receive F ratings for three consecutive years on the Georgia College and Career Ready Performance Index.
According to a list Gov. Deal's office released in May, 127 schools were eligible to be part of the new district. Most are in Atlanta and the DeKalb and Richmond county school systems.
If approved by voters, the measure would allow the governor to appoint the OSD superintendent—with state senate approval—who would report only to the governor.
The superintendent would be able to close the schools, work with local districts to improve them, or turn them into charters. Schools would remain in the state-run district for a minimum of five years but not more than 10. Up to 20 schools would be chosen annually, and no more than 100 could be in the OSD at the same time.
Some observers say Gov. Deal has fought harder for Amendment 1 than any other education issue.
"Governor Deal is adamant in his belief that a child's ZIP code should not determine the quality of his or her education," Jen Ryan, a spokeswoman for Deal, said in an email. "In schools where students can't read and can't catch up, they don't graduate. In turn, students who don't graduate are much more likely to live in poverty or be incarcerated."
But Valarie Wilson, the executive director of the Georgia School Boards Association, counters that the state already has had the flexibility to provide additional support to schools and intervene to help make improvements. Those efforts have been successful, she said, and the state should expand them instead of attempting a takeover based on models in states where results are mixed.
"This [amendment] is the exact opposite of what we are asking boards, and, quite honestly, what the state has asked in the past—that we do things based on research and evidence—and that's frightening."
Thirteen schools in the 24,000-student Bibb County district are eligible to be part of the OSD. Curtis L. Jones Jr., the superintendent since April 2015, said the district has made major efforts in recent years to boost performance in all schools, especially in its lowest-performing ones. That includes closing schools, partnering with local universities to provide professional support for teachers, and replacing principals.
"The question becomes what new would be done that we haven't already looked at," Jones said.
"This school board is different, this superintendent is different, we have different principals in the schools, and we are working on the process," he said. "We also have confidence in the work that is being done."
DeKalb County Superintendent Stephen Green has also been a vocal opponent of state takeovers. In addition to a focus on academics, turnaround efforts require understanding students, their communities, and the circumstances of their lives, said Green, who worked in the Kansas City, Mo., district under the threat of a state takeover.
Fifteen of the 28 DeKalb schools on the eligible list are within 5 points of exiting, district officials said. Ten have been targeted for complete redesign. The district has invested more than $6 million in fiscal year 2016 on curriculum, changing instruction, and adding reading specialists, parental liaisons, and academic coaches for students.
"I am not averse to support from the state," Green said. "There is a big difference between support and control."
But supporters of the amendment say students have languished in failing schools for too long.
"At some point, enough is enough," said Michael O'Sullivan, the state director of StudentsFirst Georgia, which supports school choice.
"We should, as all Georgians, demand and ensure that schools are providing a quality education to every child. ... Three years is a long time."
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