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Georgia Governor Signs School Takeover Bill

Gov. Nathan Deal's plan, which must be approved by a majority of voters in November 2016, would put 100 schools deemed to be persistent failures under state control.

By Greg Bluestein and Ty Tagami

Gov. Nathan Deal launched his bid Tuesday to persuade voters to support his school takeover plan. It will take much more than a political campaign to ensure it succeeds.

The governor's allies have already prepared the backbone of what could be a multimillion-dollar effort to prop up the plan, which would create a new statewide school district to take control of Georgia's most distressed schools. But that's just the most immediate hurdle.

They must also build a system of charter school educators and administrators who can dive into schools that have persistently struggled. They'll have to recruit corporations and philanthropists to reinforce the state's investment with private dollars. And they must learn from the mistakes that plagued similar programs in Louisiana and Tennessee.

That campaign started in earnest Tuesday, when Deal signed legislation that forms the framework of his proposal for a statewide "Opportunity School District." The plan, which must be approved by a majority of voters in November 2016, would take in up to 100 schools deemed to be persistent failures.

Deal said he's heard from outside interests that could back the ballot initiative. And he said he's weighing a quieter effort to train educators and administrators in some troubled school systems so they could one day take over a failing school as an independent charter.

"That's something we're certainly looking at. Because we want to learn from the mistakes of Louisiana and the mistakes of Tennessee," he said. "We want to get ahead of the curve and benefit from their learning experience."

A ballot clash

The overhaul would create an Opportunity School District with the power to take control of failing schools, then convert them into charters or shut them down. The district's superintendent, who would report to the governor, would have the power to fire principals, transfer teachers and change what students are taught.

It is Deal's top second-term legislative initiative, and it passed both chambers by the narrowest of margins, and only through a mix of arm-twisting and awards to cooperative legislators. The Senate mustered exactly the two-thirds majority needed for a constitutional amendment, and it crossed that threshold in the House with one vote to spare.

The governor's office is hoping for a much bigger margin of victory next year. Ballot initiatives in Georgia rarely fail, and the language in this constitutional amendment was purposely written to include a phrase -- "chronically failing public schools" -- that the authors thought would resonate with voters.

Even some of the staunchest critics openly joked that the only way to derail the plan was to somehow insert the word "tax" into the ballot question. Still, over the next 18 months, the plan's supporters and critics will clash in what could be a multimillion-dollar campaign that will culminate just in time for the presidential election.

Deal's allies have already formed the nonprofit Coalition for Georgia's Future that could potentially be used to funnel donations toward an advertising campaign for the school takeover bid, while critics including the Democratic Party of Georgia have vowed to mount a vigorous counteroffensive that casts the plan as a dangerous expansion of state power.

'True community effort'

That's just one layer of the governor's coming challenges.

The state would need to etch out the infrastructure needed to hire scores of administrators and teachers to run the distressed schools. Experts in Louisiana advised the governor during a February visit that they benefited from training existing staffers on how to operate a school as a charter rather than hiring an entirely new faculty.

"They felt that was the most effective management tool they had," Deal said, adding: "That may be an area we're going to explore in terms of preliminarily trying to identify and train individuals for that purpose."

Much also rests on the support of parents and community members who now depend on the estimated 139 schools that could be eligible for state takeover. During a February tour of schools in New Orleans revamped by a similar state takeover plan, state Sen. Butch Miller asked the Louisiana contingent how it won over education supporters.

"We never did," was the quick comeback from Ann Duplessis, a former Democratic lawmaker in Louisiana who championed the program there. That's when Bill Rouselle, an education activist, added his advice.

"Design your efforts so you make sure you do it with the schools -- and not to them," he said. "There's still a lot of resentment in New Orleans. People have to feel like they're part of the process. It's important to make it a true community effort, and I think you have the time to do that."

Verdaillia Turner, the president of the Georgia Federation of Teachers, called the Opportunity District a "tragic mistake" that is destined to failure. She said what's really needed is "wraparound" social services that deal with the high poverty in the targeted schools.

But proponents say the overwhelming vote several years ago in favor of a constitutional amendment for charter schools shows there is broad public support for change.

When the government got behind the turnaround initiative in Louisiana, business and community leaders who'd had no association with public schools got involved. The Recovery School District, as it's called there, was able to attract about 400 volunteer board members to oversee more than 60 schools. Adam Hawf, the former deputy superintendent there, said many were executives, lawyers and doctors who lived near failed schools and saw both momentum for change and an opportunity to succeed. "You often end up with people who have no political aspirations and are simply looking to give back," said Hawf, now a consultant.

He said startup costs -- for recruiting teachers, establishing curriculum and everything else that goes into a new school -- came from fundraising and ranged from $500,000 to $1.5 million per school. He said that is a small amount for an area the size of metro Atlanta, with its established philanthropy base.

Michelle Rhee, a well-known figure in education who was chancellor of schools in the District of Columbia, predicted that Atlanta would have no problem attracting either the talent or the money for its Opportunity District.

"I think there are a lot of resources that can be drawn on," said Rhee, who was at Morehouse College on Tuesday to participate in an educational leadership summit. Her husband, Kevin Johnson, a charter school advocate and the mayor of Sacramento, said at the event: "Atlanta, I am imploring you, you've got to own this opportunity."

(c)2015 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

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