Moral Duty or Impending Threat? Georgia Ballot to Include Proposed State Takeover District

Courtesy Governor Deal's Office
Update Sept. 27: Opponents of the proposed Georgia Opportunity School District, which will appear on the state's ballot in November, filed a lawsuit today arguing that the ballot language is "misleading, subjectively worded, and propagandizes the very issue being decided on the ballot," the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported. A teacher, parent, and minister, on behalf of all Georgia voters, are suing the governor, lieutenant governor, and secretary of state. Supporters from Opportunity for All Georgia said in a statement that the "frivolous" lawsuit was a "last-minute media stunt" that will hold students hostage in failing schools "simply to generate news headlines."  
Last March the Atlanta school board adopted an unusually ambitious reform agenda — school closures, management by charters, teacher rehirings, new streams of money for tutoring and other services, and the possibility of an extended school day and year.
The scope of the plan was a response to the need to create better options for Atlanta’s children while also aiming to fend off state takeover of nearly two dozen of the city’s schools, which would enter a newly formed district for struggling schools across Georgia.
“The academic and social emotional needs of our children demanded that we take immediate action to turn around Atlanta’s schools,” Superintendent Meria Carstarphen wrote in a blog post at the start of the school year. “A proposed state takeover Opportunity School District put the whole effort on a short runway. While I wish we had more time to be deliberate and thoughtful, we must do the work now.”
Georgia voters will consider a number of marquee races this November – U.S. senator, members of the House and, for the first time in many years, a competitive presidential contest. Flying under voters’ radar — but perhaps even more important to the Peach State’s 1.9 million students — is the question of whether Georgia should join Louisiana, Tennessee and other states that can assume control of failing schools.
The ballot language is simple: “Shall the Constitution of Georgia be amended to allow the state to intervene in chronically failing public schools in order to improve student performance?”
Proponents, including Gov. Nathan Deal, a Republican, frame the change as an ethical imperative.
“We have a moral duty to help these children who can’t help themselves. The sea is great and the boat is small, but the boat must not have first- and second-class seating,” Deal said when first proposing the measure in his 2015 State of the State address. “Our places of learning should be where a child learns triumph, not defeat.”
If Georgia voters approve the change, schools designated as “persistently failing” (scoring below 60 out of a possible 100 on state school ratings for three consecutive years) would be eligible for takeover.
The nature of the provision — judging schools on an absolute scale rather than a curve (e.g., the bottom 5 percent) — sets Georgia’s plan apart from those of other states, advocates say.
“It tries to provide the impetus for a district to turn things around themselves,” said Michael O’Sullivan, state director of StudentsFirst Georgia, which supports the measure.
And that’s already happening in some places around the state, as Atlanta’s aggressive agenda suggests.
The ability of Georgia districts to make fairly radical changes stems from a 2008 law that allows them to change their governance structure; in exchange for greater autonomy, they have to meet standards agreed to by state officials.
“We would love nothing more than for every school district to step up and take action and ensure that Georgia doesn’t have any failing schools,” O’Sullivan said. In fact, if the Opportunity School District works perfectly, it could improve schools so much that it’s eventually no longer needed, he pointed out.
If the ballot measure passes, the first cohort of schools will be selected by April 1 of next year, with state supervision beginning in the 2017–2018 school year.
There were 127 schools potentially eligible for inclusion based on CCRPI scores (a measure of college and career readiness) as of May, according to the governor’s office. A significant number of them are in the Atlanta area: 22 are in the Atlanta system, and 28 are in DeKalb County, which borders the city.
The superintendent of the OSD would decide which of several possible interventions a school would use, including continued local management but with state oversight, direct state management, conversion into a charter school or closure. The district would take no more than 20 schools per year, for five years each; at full capacity the OSD would control 100 schools.
Opponents are trying to focus voters on the potential loss of local control.
There’s no guarantee that parents and families would have a voice in what happens to their school, said Lisa-Marie Haygood, president of the Georgia PTA.
“I have yet to see anything that the state has taken over that’s been a successful model,” she said, citing failures in housing and the medical system. “Nothing goes well when the state’s in charge of it. It’s too big and too bureaucratic.”
A September ad, paid for by Keep Georgia Schools Local (funded, as of an August 30 campaign finance report, the most recent available, almost entirely by $125,000 from the Georgia Educators Association) warned that costs to local taxpayers will be huge. Instead of using the money for smaller class sizes, increased teacher salaries or school resources, the ballot would “make us pay for a whole new set of bureaucrats and an unaccountable political appointee,” a female narrator says.

Teachers unions are also expected to continue campaigning vigorously against the measure. The National Education Association said it will spend a sizable amount of money campaigning; Deal put the amount at $1.5 million, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported. The state chapter of the NAACP and some clergy groups have also come out against the measure.
Opponents say their biggest problem is that voters aren’t aware that the seemingly innocuous question could reverberate harmfully across state districts for years or decades.
“This is a major piece of legislation that’s impacting our state, and people should know and understand [it],” said Justin Pauly, director of communications for the Georgia School Boards Association, which isn’t associated with other campaigns. At least a half-dozen local school boards have passed resolutions opposing the ballot question.
The PTA is encouraging members to access its online resources to understand how best to lobby voters. And the organization is targeting everyone, Haygood said, from superintendents and school boards to homeowners associations and scout meetings. “We want to leave no stone unturned in making sure people are educated in what the actual language is,” she said.
(The group also launched a dramatic video, warning of dangers should the measure pass, that looks more like a horror movie than a political ad. Haygood said it’s aimed at millennial voters who may be voting for the first time or are not as informed on the issue.) 
Among supporters, Deal, who said he was inspired by the success of Louisiana’s recovery district in New Orleans and the hope of reducing the number of juvenile inmates in Georgia prisons, constantly touts the proposal, aides say.
“He travels all over the state, whether it’s in remarks or meetings or a media scrum afterward, he finds a way to press the issue and trying to explain the need for it,” said Jen Ryan, deputy chief of staff for communications. “The governor is adamant that a child should not be forced to remain trapped in a failing school and limit his or her opportunities because a parent can’t afford to move.”
Proponents, under the banner of Opportunity for All Georgia Students, also ran an ad assuring high-performing districts they won’t be affected. State Sen. Freddie Powell Sims, a co-sponsor of the legislation, says the takeover is “an opportunity to help those students that have been failing for decades.” The ad’s inclusion of Powell Sims, who is black, is an appeal to the state’s black voters, who supported a 2012 charter school ballot question despite opposition from Democratic groups, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported.

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