Voters Give Georgia's Plan to Take Over Failing Schools an "F"

As other states launch similar plans to improve education, Georgia is back to the drawing board.
by | November 9, 2016
Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal: “Liberals cannot defend leaving a child trapped in a failing school that sentences them to a life in poverty." (AP/David Goldman)

Read all of our coverage on 2016 ballot measures at governing.com/ballotmeasures.

Georgians have rejected Gov. Nathan Deal's plan to take over chronically failing schools amid concerns that the proposal was too vague and alienated local officials.

The ballot measure, which would have led to a new state agency with its own state school superintendent appointed by the governor, failed by a 3-to-2 margin.

The result was largely expected as polling showed public opinion moving against the idea in recent months.

Lisa-Marie Haygood, president of the Georgia PTA, celebrated with other opponents of the measure on Tuesday night. Opponents also included teachers, school boards and former Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young.

“We did it,” Young told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “We all wanted to stop a bad law from taking effect.”

The rejection comes as other states have launched or are considering their own takeover programs.

Eight states -- Arkansas, Missouri, Nevada, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Texas, Utah and Wisconsin -- are all trying to duplicate a pioneering effort in Tennessee. That program launched the Achievement School District (ASD) in 2012 and has the goal of lifting the state’s worst-performing 5 percent of schools to the top 25 percent in five years.

Most of the ASD’s 33 schools are in Memphis and have shown solid gains in math and science. But it’s unclear if the oldest schools in the program will meet the five-year goal and questions remain over how to return local control.

In Georgia, nearly 130 schools have a failing score from the Georgia Department of Education’s College and Career Ready Performance Index. In proposing the ballot initiative, Deal, a Republican, said some local school districts have failed children for too long.

Deal's proposal called for his appointed superintendent to oversee the so-called Opportunity School District, which could have taken over up to 20 new schools per year and govern no more than 100 schools at any one time. To be eligible, schools would have had to earn an “F” on the state’s accountability system three years in a row.

In addition to the state running the school, a takeover could have also lead to a school being shut down or turned into a charter. To exit, a school had to score above failing for three straight years. Schools could have operated in the Opportunity School District for up to 10 years.

Thomas B. Fordham Institute President Mike Petrilli, who was supportive of Georgia’s plan, said Tennessee’s ASD model is attractive because it gets at the root of the problem.

“The school is just a symptom -- the disease is the district itself,” he said.

By way of explanation, Petrilli said that a district could give veteran teachers first dibs on new placements, leading to a situation where the better, more experienced teachers are migrating to the more affluent schools.

“The notion of plucking the schools out of that dysfunction,” he said, “is really powerful.”

But state takeovers have a spotty history. Michigan’s floundering efforts at school takeover provided great ammunition to opponents in Georgia.

Petrilli called that effort “ham-handed” because it didn’t allow for enough flexibility to make institutional changes and essentially just changed the district’s reporting structure from local officials to a state commissioner. Of the 15 schools in the state’s Education Achievement Authority created in 2011, 13 of them are still listed as failing and one is listed as closed.

Read all of our coverage on 2016 ballot measures at governing.com/ballotmeasures.