The Georgia House Should “Pink Slip” the Opportunity School District

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The Georgia House Should Pink Slip the Opportunity School District

Last week the Georgia Senate voted and passed two bills, Senate Bill 133 and Senate Resolution 287.  Senate Bill 133 will set up the Opportunity School District (OSD), which will enable the state to take over public elementary and secondary schools that have a grade of F for three consecutive years.  Senate Resolution 287 proposes an amendment to the Constitution of Georgia, which allows the General Assembly to set up the OSD.

These bills will enable the Governor’s office to take over 20 of Georgia’s “chronically failing” public schools in the 2017-2018 school year, and then increase the number to 100 schools throughout the state.  These “chronically failing” schools will make up a statewide school district called the Opportunity School District.

This is a bad deal for public education in Georgia.  For Senate Bill 133, I’ll show that the devil is in the details, and in the end the takeover plan that the Governor and the Senate advocate will be a disaster for Georgia public schools.  Singling out each school is an untenable solution to school improvement. The state, however, will eventually single out 100 schools (and my guess is that this number will increase over time), not realizing or ignoring some truths about how systems work.

Ed Johnson, a colleague and researcher in Atlanta, puts it this way:

“It would be the top administration’s mistake, and abdication of their leadership responsibility, to single out any school or Region to hold any people there “accountable” as a special matter. Leadership from the top, from both the school board and the superintendency, is required. Only they can be held “accountable” in any rational way. And no way of “accountability” pushed down from the top can substitute for the requisite leadership needed to foster collaboration with and among affected stakeholders, as a system.”

Breaking apart districts will be a mistake.

Let’s turn our attention to the concept of “chronically failing schools” being rescued by a state level administration with a cadre of charter schools.  This what Senate Bill 133 is about.

Chronically Failing Schools

The plan is based on the New Orleans’ Recovery School District (RSD), created by the Louisiana legislature in 2003.  After Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the state legislature passed Act 35, which transferred 100 “low performing schools” in New Orleans over to the RSD. (I wondered why The Georgia plan calls for taking over 100 schools–copy that). The RSD became the ideal setting for the influx of charter school management firms, which presumably would create the basis for an “epic reform” of schooling in the Parishes of New Orleans and other locations.

That has not happened.

RSD schools are failing schools based on a system that was based on a “star” rating system developed by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC).  In 2011, Louisiana instituted letter grades based on another ALEC bill.  The variable used to rate schools was student performance on standardized tests in math and reading–and that’s all.

The Georgia legislature followed suit, instituting the “star” and “letter grade” system.  Recently, however, the state of Georgia initiated the College and Career Ready Performance Index (CCRPI), a composite number or score of achievement points, progress points, achievement gap points and challenge points.  No matter how you look at this, its how students score on standardized tests–just the same as is done in New Orleans.

For the state as a whole, CCRPI average scores are 72.7 for elementary schools, 73.8 for middle schools, and 68.4 for high schools.  Instead of stars, the state uses six performance flags (2 for each color): green (subgroup meets standards), yellow (subgroup meets some of the standards), red (failed to meet standards). Another way to show this, is:

  • Green Flags–passed
  • Yellow Flags–caution or so-so
  • Red Flags–failed

Data from the Georgia Department of Education indicates that schools scoring lower than 60 on the CCRPI measures for three consecutive years would be considered a potential turnaround or failing school (they are publicly red flagged and therefore identified as a failing school).

There are 141 “chronically failing” schools in the state.  The schools are concentrated in these locations:

  • Atlanta (27)
  • DeKalb County (26)
  • Richmond County (21)
  • Bibb County (14)
  • Muscogee County (10).  

The remaining schools are scattered around the state.  You can see the list here.

In Georgia and Louisiana, school ratings are based on quantitative data.   This has set up a system that ensures failure for many schools, especially those identified above by the Georgia Department of Education.  Furthermore, if we use only quantitative data to make high stakes decision natural consequences include systematic cheating.

But failure is defined by a system that does not take into consideration many aspects of school that are qualitative, and aspects that deeply impact teaching and learning.  The state is only interested in standardized test scores in English Language Arts, mathematics, science & social studies.  It appears not to be interested in courses in the arts, music, including theory, band, chorus, physical education, drama, and many other courses that student’s experience as part of school.

And what is the effect of poverty of on the quantitative data the state collects to decide whether a school is failing or not?  As Diane Ravitch says, poverty matters.  It affects children’s health and well-being.  It affects their emotional lives, and academic performance.  These out-of-school factors actually a greater effect on student learning, including scores on standardized tests, than do in-school factors.  To read an analysis of the CCRPI and its connection to poverty concentration, link here.

Georgia’s Opportunity School District

The Opportunity School District, which was proposed by Governor Nathan Deal, is indeed an opportunity.  But it is not in the best interests of students and their families in the communities identified as having “chronically failing schools.”  The first detail to pull out of Senate Bill 133 is that this bill is nothing short of opening the flood gates for charter schools, which have been documented time and again as not nearly being as effective as “regular” public schools.  These schools will replace public schools that have been red-flagged for three consecutive years.  The main goal of school will be to get students to score higher on standardized tests.  Success will hinge primarily on the test scores in mathematics and reading.  Teaching to the test will be the main goal of schooling in the OSD.

In this Senate bill, paragraph after paragraph is devoted to describing how the state will set up a state-wide charter school district for “chronically failing schools.”  But here is a real problem for Georgia legislators to consider.  The evidence from the New Orleans Recovery School District is that for the most part, schools that were considered failing before they entered the confines of the RSD continued to earn failing grades, stars, or flags–pick your own symbol.

Research on the New Orleans Recovery School District

Documentation for the failure of the New Orleans Recovery School District can be found in many sources.  For example, Michelle Constantinides, an Atlanta parent and education activist, published an article on Maureen Downey’s AJC “Get Schooled” blog entitled “Rhyme and reason: Georgia should not adopt New Orleans state takeover model.”  Constantinides documents school-by-school failure while being part of the RSD, and shows that if anything, these charter schools did very little in the way of improving the academic achievement of students.

Dr. Kristen Buras, Researcher and Associate Professor in the Educational Policy Studies Department, Georgia State University has done ground-breaking research on how charter schools in New Orleans, promoted as an “equitable and innovative solution to the problems plaguing urban schools,” have capitalized on racially oppressed communities to enable entrepreneurs to come in on the backs of children and their parents to set up for-profit schools.

Representing a very robust educational research community in the Georgia, Dr. Buras has published reports and two recent books on the New Orleans Recovery School District.  Her most recent book, “Charter Schools, Race and Urban Space” (Rutledge, 2015) is an in-depth study of the New Orleans Recovery School District since 2005.  The major theme of her book–that the RSD is a strategy to use market-based reforms to give control of public schools, attended by Black children in Black communities and often taught by Black teachers, over to well-funded white entrepreneurs.  This thesis needs to be part of the conversation about Senate Bill 133, which will set up a school district of charter schools that will have control over “chronically failing” public schools.

In Buras’ research she found that charter schools taken over by the state derived little to no advice from the school community, charter managers were given immense decision-making power, charters often engaged in selective admission standards, veteran teachers were fired, charters were privately managed, charter schools had access to funding to upgrade schools at public expense, and public schools were closed to accommodate new charter start-ups. Often students had to travel more than an hour to and from school because their neighborhood school was closed.

Buras’ research is very relevant to the Georgia takeover plan.  She has exposed some troubling issues that are pertinent to Senate Bill 133.  For example, veteran New Orleans teachers were fired en mass in 2008.  After they were fired, many tried to seek positions in the RDS, but were not hired, perhaps because their salaries were higher than first and second year recruits whom charter managers favored.  You can read an account of this in The Times-Picayune paper here.  Black teachers were replaced in the newly opened charter schools by mostly white inexperienced teachers from Teach for America.  Charter schools, to discourage the fired teachers, offered private retirement plans and not the state pension fund.

If you don’t think this will happen in Georgia, then you might read the details in Georgia’s Race to the Top (RT3) grant.

According to the Georgia RT3, failing schools will either be closed or “reformed” using one of various reform school models.  In the reform school models, the principal is fired, and at least half the teachers are replaced.  But here is the thing.  When I examined the RT3 budget section for turning around low achieving schools, the lion’s share of the money went to Teach for America and The New Teacher Fund, which recruits and establishes a pipeline of inexperienced and non-licensed teachers, who are hired by school districts and then placed in the lowest performing schools.

In research done earlier and reported on this post, the state of Georgia (and many others around the country) have established questionable relationships within the context of turnaround schools with charter management companies, Teach for America and the New Teacher Project.  Follow this link to read my report.

The reformists behind such experiments as charter schools believe a charter school is good because it is a charter. The implication here is that charter schools are more effective than their counterpart public schools.  Julian Vasquez Heilig, Professor of Educational Leadership and Policy Studies at California State University, Sacramento, and Professor Michael Marder, Professor of Physics, University of Texas, have studied charter schools extensively, and independently.

Heilig’s research has focused schools as community learning centers.  His research has shown that if a neighborhood school becomes a learning center, and not being closed or becoming a state controlled reform school, parents, students, teachers and neighborhood businesses form an intense partnership leading to local school improvement.

Marder’s research has involved the analysis of large data sets and he has shown that there is a strong relationship between poverty concentration and achievement, and that nearly all charter schools produce dismal results.  He found that higher poverty concentrations were inversely related to achievement scores (ACT).

A state takeover of chronically failing schools with a slew of charter schools would be a big mistake, and would not be a choice for students and their parents.

Georgia’s Opportunity School District

In Georgia here is what is going to happen if the House joins the Senate and votes in favor of the Opportunity School District, and the citizens of the state agree to change the state constitution.

The OSD will exist within the Governor’s Office of Student Achievement.  The Governor will “appoint” a superintendent, to be confirmed by the Senate.  This person will serve at the pleasure of the Governor.  In Louisiana, one of the first Superintendents of the RSD was a person who had two years of teaching experience, and a few years working for the Department of Education in New York City.  He later, with the help of out-of-state financing, became the Superintendent of the Louisiana Department of Education.

In Georgia, the Superintendent of the OSD will have the power to set up the guidance and rules for operating the state-wide district. The OSD will select up to 20 qualifying schools.  Qualifying schools?  Yes.  Schools that qualify would be those that had been red-flagged for three years in a row based on the College and Career Ready Performance Index.

Although the bill states that public hearings might be held, the list of schools shall be decided by OSD Superintendent.

The OSD is authorized to waive some education rules, only if they contribute to increasing student performance (on standardized tests).

Now, here is an interesting detail in the Bill.  The OSD will collaborate with the State Charter Schools Commission to build capacity to set up charter schools.

In 2011 the Supreme Court of Georgia’s decision, Gwinnett County School District v. Cox, found that the state constitution does not authorize any governmental entity to create or run schools that is not under the control of a local board of education. The court ordered that no other government entity can compete with or duplicate the efforts of local boards of education in establishing and maintaining general K-12 schools. And it further states that local boards of education have the exclusive authority to fulfill one of the primary obligations of the Georgia, namely “the provision of an adequate public education for all citizens”

But during the next General Assembly, the legislature retaliated and passed a bill that changed the Constitution of Georgia to reinstate the Charter School Commission.  In the 2012 elections, Georgia citizens ratified the bill.

These actions, and Senate Bill 133 have set in motion the dismantling of a segment of Georgia’s school population that has not done well on state mandated standardized tests.

The Opportunity School District is a dangerous plan.  The OSD is not intended to improve education in communities that have struggling schools. It is designed to reform schools by people who know very little to nothing about education, but know a lot about taking advantage, and in the end, the opportunity to privatize public education.

Why aren’t University System of Georgia Researchers and 100,000 K-12 Public School Educators involved in the Takeover Plan?

As Emeritus Professor of Science Education at Georgia State University, I have to ask the Governor and the Georgia Assembly why the higher education research community has not been publicly engaged in the OSD.  The University System of Georgia has a robust academic and research community.  It receives more than $1 billion in outside funding each year for research, and an economic impact of more than $14 billion.  There are researchers in Georgia who specialize in education policy, educational reform and learning.

Governor Deal, why haven’t you embraced this powerful resource?

As a professor for more than 30 years at GSU I worked with students seeking degrees in math and science education at the masters, specialist and doctoral levels.  I also worked alongside full-time teachers and principals around the state.  There are more than 100,00 teachers in Georgia, with 54% having ten or more years of experience.

Again, I ask the Governor and the General Assembly of Georgia:

Why haven’t you pursued the wisdom of these teachers and principals?

To create a separate and potentially for-profit school district is ill willed.  It is rhetorical, and is deprived of a research base.  How can the Governor and the General Assembly ignore the 100,000 people in this state who can help improve schooling and get us out of this quagmire?

And one more question for our legislators.  Why do want to extend the reach of government? Don’t you believe that education is best served by the people at the local level?

Pink Slip

The Georgia House of Representatives needs to scrutinize, and then pink slip the Opportunity School District plan.

Jeb Bush’s Foundation for Excellence: Poster Child for Influence Peddling

Earlier this month, Governor Bush talked with the editors of Education Next about the legacy of the Florida reforms, his support for the Common Core State Standards, and his vision for education in the United States.  Education Next published the interview on its website here.

I responded to the article on their website, but my comment has not been published yet.

Here is what I wrote:

Mr. Bush’s analysis of his organization’s work is disingenuous.  When he left office as governor of Florida he and his allies created the Foundation for Excellence in Education, a large bureaucratic organization to influence legislation around the country.  The Foundation has become a major influence peddler enticing and supporting the privatization of public education.

Yet, Mr. Bush said this in the Education Next article:

“We need to end the government monopoly in education by transferring power from bureaucracies and unions to families.  The era of defining public education as allegiance to centralized school districts must end.”

Isn’t interesting that Mr. Bush has 8 years as the head of the government of Florida to test out his ideas, but now he wants to disable government’s role in education.  He claims the power will be transferred to parents, but that is a huge mistaken belief.  The power transfer is from families to private companies and organizations whose goal is privatize schooling by the using taxpayer’s dime.

Bush is a huge backer of charter schools, especially those that exist in the “cloud,” as virtual schools.  They have an elaborate scheme to influence states to move into these technology/virtual schools.  But Bush’s Foundation was “exposed” in a series of investigative reporting by Colin Woodard.  What was exposed was the profit motive behind the virtual schools that Bush’s group was pushing in Maine.  You can read Mr. Woodard’s full report in the Portland Press Herald.

The Education Next interview with Jeb Bush is prelude to his run for the Presidency.  Most of the motive behind his comments play into the hands of reformers who support the Common Core, the use of VAM scores to rate teachers, Virtual Schools, and high-stakes testing.  When you read his comments, its obvious that he ignores or doesn’t want to hear what is the research on some of his pet projects, especially charters and virtual schools.

I liken Bush’s Foundation for Excellence in Education to the American Legislative Exchange Council.  Each group uses power, influence and money to influence legislation at the state level to support a conservative agenda.

Earlier this year I wrote a series of posts on Bush’s Foundation.  I am re-publishing one of those articles here entitled “Bush’s Education Foundation and Influence Peddling: Any Truth to it?“, but you can find all of them here.

 

Bush’s Education Foundation and Influence Peddling: Any Truth to It?

The Foundation for Excellence in Education (ExcelinEd) is an organization founded in 2008 by Jeb Bush.  After reading about Bush’s claims that American teens were falling behind in math and science, and listening to his most recent speech at the Heritage Institute, I decided to investigate ExcelinEd, to find out what it is up to, and the extent of its intrusion into the various state’s education policies.  I also wanted to find out to what extent there is influence peddling going on, and any reports on the Foundation’s connections with private companies that sell products and services to public school systems.

According to the ExcelinEd website, the Foundation started out as a conservative group that now is bi-partisan and national in scope (according to them).  The Foundation works with state and local governments and legislative bodies to offer model legislation, rule-making ability, and implementation strategies related to its reform agenda.  Does this remind you of the American Legislative Exchange Council?  According to the Center for Media and Democracy, ALEC is uses corporate money to influence state politicians by not only writing “model” bills, but by providing expertise, and convening conferences for state legislators to learn the ropes of the legislation that they will propose in their states.

The Bush Foundation for Excellence in Education does the same.

The Bush foundation agenda has seven priorities, and its work centers on influencing state governments to pass laws that are directly related to these reform priorities.  The seven reform categories (shown in Box 1) are elements of the corporate and foundation led privatization of public schools, as well as the accountability system based on Common Core Standards and High-Stakes testing.  The reforms shown here are embedded in the No Child Left Behind Act, and the Race to the Top.  I’ve studied Georgia’s Race to the Top $400 million proposal and work plan; the state of Georgia’s education system is held in check by these categories of “reform.”

Box 1. Bush Reform Categories

  • Ccr: College and Career Readiness
  • Dl: Digital Learning
  • Etl: Effective Teachers and Leaders
  • K3r: K-3 Reading
  • Obf: Outcome-Based Funding
  • Sc: School Choice
  • Sa: Standards and Accountability

Influence Peddling?

One of my first projects was to find out how much influence the Bush foundation has exerted on legislative efforts in the states and the District of Columbia.  The Foundation website has a link to its State of Reform which takes you to an interactive map of the U.S.  Clicking on  any state map will take you to a page that will show which of the “reform categories” the Foundation has “had the opportunity to partner with reformers (in that state) to support development, adoption, and implementation of as many of the Bush reforms as possible.

So, the Foundation website provides evidence of its influence on legislation in each state.

To make sense of this data, I created an Excel chart that included the number of laws per reform category that the Foundation had a direct connection with lawmakers in each state.  Counts of the number of laws per state by reform category were recorded.  I interpreted the number of laws reported as an indicator of the degree of influence that the Bush foundation exerts on the states.  In some states (including Alaska, Illinois, Kansas, Massachusetts, and New York), there appeared to be no activity.  But there were many states where the Foundation has made inroads by either providing model education reform bills for legislators to use and propose, or by providing consulting services to encourage the passage of bills that are congruent with the goals of the Foundation.

The degree of influence ranged from zero (0) to ninety-five (95).  There are 18 states in which no education laws were passed based on any influence from the Bush foundation, while there were 16 states with some influence.  The Foundation for Excellence in Education is moderately to extremely active in the remaining 18 states.  It is clear from their own website that they are influencing legislation in these states that supports their intentions.

Figure 2. Influence of the Foundation for Excellence in Education from No Influence to Extremely Influential
Figure 1. Influence of the Foundation for Excellence in Education on U.S. States and the District of Columbia Ranging from No Influence to Extremely Influential

There is one state that stands out, and that of course is Florida.  Florida, which is home to the Foundation, had an index influence score of 95.  The Foundation influenced every one of the reform categories in Florida as seen in Box 2.  In fact, there was more influence peddling in Florida than in most of the remaining states combined.

Box 2: Bush’s Florida Influence: Number of Laws per Reform Category 

  • Ccr: College and Career Readiness—21
  • Dl: Digital Learning—10
  • Etl: Effective Teachers and Leaders—9
  • K3r: K-3 Reading—16
  • Obf: Outcome-Based Funding—12
  • Sc: School Choice—20
  • Sa: Standards and Accountability—7

The influence of the Bush foundation in the states is shown in Figure 2.  For most states, the influence exerted by the foundation falls within expected limits, but Florida is the exception, and is several standard deviations above the other states.

Figure 1. Flow Chart Analysis of the Foundation for Excellence in Education's Influence on State Legislation
Figure 2. Flow Chart Analysis of the Foundation for Excellence in Education’s Influence on State Legislation.  *Index Influence Score is equal to the number of reforms directly linked to the influence from the Foundation.

Although the graph paints a picture of evenness of influence throughout the country, don’t be fooled by these numbers.

All it takes is one case of influence peddling to call the organization out, and to expose them for what they are really trying to do.  Digital learning and virtual schools is one of the areas that the Foundation of Excellence is eager to support and influence, because of the lucrative profits that will be realized if states pass laws that require students to take at least one online course to graduate, or offer the possibility of students opting for online courses and not brick and mortar classes.

Virtual Schools in Maine–Poster Child for Influence Peddling?

In an investigative report, Colin Woodard published the story The Profit Motive Behind Virtual Schools in Maine.  The Foundation for Excellence sponsors conferences for state officials in which presentations are made about the merits of the various reform efforts of the Foundation, especially virtual schools.

In 2012, according to the Woodard report, Maine’s education commissioner was paid to attend a three-day Foundation in Excellence conference in San Francisco.  At that conference, Stephen Bowen, was introduced to two things that excited him:

  1. Everything an educator needed to know about the merits of full-time virtual schools
  2. The Foundation for Excellence in Education Digital Learning Now report card, grading each state on its efforts in digital learning (Graded from A – F)

Mr. Bowen, when shown the Digital Learning Now, 2012 report card, soon discovered that the state of Maine received an overall score of D+.  Bowen’s goal was to improve digital access in Maine by deregulating online learning.  According to Woodard’s article, Bowen was overwhelmed and didn’t have a staff to carry this out.

Not to worry.

He met Patricia Levesque, head of the foundation, although she is paid through her private foundation.  It turns out she is paid as a lobbyist for online education companies.  Woodard writes about how their meeting in San Francisco led to a partnership (a favorite word of the foundation).  She writes:

Bowen was preparing an aggressive reform drive on initiatives intended to dramatically expand and deregulate online education in Maine, but he felt overwhelmed.

I have no ‘political’ staff who I can work with to move this stuff through the process,” he emailed her from his office.

Levesque replied not to worry; her staff in Florida would be happy to suggest policies, write laws and gubernatorial decrees, and develop strategies to ensure they were implemented.

“When you suggested there might be a way for us to get some policy help, it was all I could do not to jump for joy,” Bowen wrote Levesque from his office.

“Let us help,” she responded.

So was a partnership formed between Maine’s top education official and a foundation entangled with the very companies that stand to make millions of dollars from the policies it advocates.

The Woodard investigation revealed much of Maine’s digital education agenda was being guided (and written) in secret by companies that stood to gain from any actions that Maine took with regard to digital education.  Here was a poster child for influence peddling.  K12 Inc. (an online company), and Connections Education (a subsidiary of Pearson) were involved, and there was evidence that thousands of dollars were spent to create “independent” boards who would run the digital and virtual programs in Maine.  Each of these companies not only influenced state legislators in Maine, they also contributed financial aid to the Foundation for Excellence and the American Legislative Exchange Council!

The actions in Maine by the Foundation for Excellence in Education overlapped with the action of ALEC.  But here is how influence peddling works, as revealed by Woodard’s investigation.  She says in her article:

The corporate chair of ALEC’s education committee was revealed to be Mickey Revenaugh, Connections Education’s senior vice president of state relations, and members included K12, the International Association for K12 Online Learning, and Bush’s Foundation for Excellence in Education. (Connections Education withdrew its membership in May.)

Bowen was also an ALEC member in March 2011, the month he was confirmed as commissioner, according to a second set of ALEC documents leaked to Common Cause and posted on their website earlier this summer. Bowen – then a senior adviser to LePage and the head of education initiatives for the conservative Maine Heritage Policy Center – served as a private sector member of ALEC’s education committee, where he worked alongside officials from K12, Connections and other interested companies evaluating and approving model bills – including one creating centralized state clearinghouses for the sale of online courses.

The leaked documents also showed that ALEC-sponsored digital education bills have been introduced in state legislatures across the country in recent years.

Foundations, such as the Foundation for Excellence in Education and the American Legislative Exchange Council have hidden agenda’s.  They use language, that as Gene Glass says (quoted in the Woodard article) is “the ideal form of crony capitalism.”

The connections between Bush’s Foundation, private companies, and state officials has set up the perfect storm for not just a privatization of schooling, but the expansion of a corrupt and secret, behind closed doors operation that changes laws to line the pockets of corporate officials.  Is the Bush foundation nothing more than an arm or a subdivision of ALEC.  Probably not.  But it certainly behaves as if it received its training and marching orders from them.

What do you think?  Is there any influence peddling of this sort going on in your neck of the woods?  Please tell us about it.