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.

About Jack Hassard

Jack Hassard is a writer, a former high school teacher, Professor Emeritus of Science Education, Georgia State University, and graduated from Bridgewater State University, Boston University, and The Ohio State University, many, many years ago.

...and in the November election, I'M FOR HER.