Monthly Archives: February 2015

House Leaders Reject Health Insurance Cuts For Part-Time School Employees

Georgia House leaders rejected Gov. Nathan Deal’s plan to cut health insurance benefits to 22,000 part-time school employees and their families, but local school districts would wind up picking up the tab.

The $103 million local districts would have to pay in additional “contributions” to the State Health Benefit Plan for so-called “noncertified” system workers would severely eat into the extra money Deal and lawmakers promised schools to give teachers raises, eliminate furloughs and add back class time.

The proposal is part of the $21.8 billion state budget for next year that the House Appropriations Committee approved on Wednesday. It is expected to pass the full House on Thursday before heading to the Senate. Fiscal 2016 begins July 1.

The spending plan also includes $200 million worth of borrowing for new transportation projects; $100 million to repair and replace dangerous bridges across the state; and $100 million for transit projects.

More money may get added later if the General Assembly passes legislation currently being debated that would put an extra $1 billion a year into transportation.

Plan seeks raises for judges

The House budget also would provide big raises for some of the state’s top judges, cut in half Deal’s proposal to add staff to the troubled state ethics commission and deeply reduce  a program designed to give low-interest loans to college students.

The state budget provides funding to help educate about 2 million students and provide health and nursing care for more than 1.8 million Georgians. The state funds road improvements and prisons, economic development initiatives and cancer research, business and environmental regulation, parks and water projects. It creates thousands of private-sector jobs through construction projects.

The health insurance issue for bus drivers, cafeteria workers and other part-time school employees has been one of the most contentious of the session.

Deal proposed booting part-time school employees off the State Health Benefit Plan to save the program money. The Department of Community Health said it would only save the state $2.7 million, while administration officials and lawmakers put the savings at $81 million.

DCH said the insurance coverage program for noncertified school workers, such as bus drivers and bookkeepers, was losing big money. Deal also said it was unfair for part-time school workers to get insurance when thousands of part-time state workers don’t get coverage. Part-time lawmakers are covered by the State Health Benefit Plan, and there has been no move to cut them from the program.

‘Just trying to level the playing field’

Bus drivers and teachers have lobbied the General Assembly hard for more than a month to reject Deal’s proposal.

House Appropriations Chairman Terry England, R-Auburn, said he supported giving part-time school workers insurance.

“We feel like there is a vital role these individuals play in transporting our students,” he said.

But he later added: “Everybody needs to understand those are local (school) system employees. Part-time state employees don’t get coverage. We are just trying to level the playing field with everybody.”

Lawmakers had agreed a few years ago to start increasing the “employer contribution” — money from school districts — to pay for full- and part-time “noncertified” school workers’ insurance. Under the House budget, districts would have to pay an additional $102.8 million.

At the same time, the budget includes an extra $280 million recommended by Deal to allow school districts to give raises and end furloughs that were prevalent during and after the Great Recession.

Shift in costs displeases educators

The added health insurance costs didn’t sit well with educators.

“I think the educators and education support professionals are simply tired with the funding shell game that is going on at the Capitol,” said John Palmer, a Cobb County school band director and spokesman for the group Teachers Rally to Advocate for Georgia Insurance Choices, or TRAGIC. “Budgets are priorities, and you can’t say education is a priority if you give money with one hand and take it away with the other.

“There are districts in Georgia that still cannot open their doors for the full 180-day school year. Do you think they will be able to afford insurance for bus drivers and cafeteria workers?”

Angela Palm of the Georgia School Boards Association said: “Just as the state has been able to start paying down the austerity cut so the districts can get the instructional time back to where it needs to be for students, this happens. How unfortunate.”

In their budget plan, House leaders also more than cut in half the increase Deal proposed to boost the staff of the state ethics commission, which enforces the state’s campaign finance and lobbying laws. Deal proposed adding four attorneys and four investigators to expedite complaints made to the commission; the House agreed to add two attorneys and two auditors.

The House leaders supported pay raises for the state’s top judges. Supreme Court and Appeals Court judges would get $12,000 raises. Circuit public defenders would get $15,000 raises. Superior Court judges and district attorneys in circuits that don’t provide big salary supplements would also get raises.

Loan program for students faces cut

Deal had proposed increasing the budget for low-interest loans for college students from $19 million to $25 million because of greater need for the loans. England said lawmakers found that the program had a high default rate, and they cut funding instead to $17 million for the upcoming year. Meanwhile, they increased by 50 percent Deal’s proposed budget for engineering scholarships for private Mercer University, a longtime pet program for Middle Georgia lawmakers.

The spending plan includes about $1 billion in new construction projects, mostly for k-12 schools, colleges and transportation.

The state would borrow $23 million for parking facilities near the new Atlanta Falcons stadium. Lawmakers approved borrowing $17 million for the project last year.

Deal’s efforts to remake Capitol Hill would also continue in next year’s budget. With Liberty Plaza across from the statehouse and several other projects completed, the governor included $6.5 million to demolish the former archives building just off I-20, and House leaders supported it. The building hasn’t been used as an archives for several years, and state officials want to tear it down and build a new courts facility on the location.


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Legislators spar over revised College Board AP history test

ATLANTA (AP) — The College Board’s new Advanced Placement U.S. history test is strongly biased to the left and should be scrapped, Republican Sen. William Ligon said Wednesday in an argument that has also been made by lawmakers in at least three other states.

In an often contentious hearing of a joint meeting of the state Senate and House education committees on Ligon’s Senate Resolution 80, legislators expressed strong concerns that the new test, already in use, is unfair and sends erroneous signals about capitalism and race, among other topics.

Ligon and legislative panelists faced off against Trevor Packer, a top official of the College Board, and Centennial High School AP history teacher Chad Hoge, who defended revisions in the latest Advanced Placement History test.

Stanley Kurtz, a senior fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, and retired history teacher Larry Krieger, a consultant from Statesville, N.C., contended the Advanced Placement test needs competition.

Kurtz claimed the new AP test “is dominated by a leftist ideology.”

In particular, Ligon, Kurtz and Kreiger said the new test is critical of the late President Reagan, is anti-free enterprise, and portrays corporations as greedy and self-serving. Ligon said the College Board has made the test “more politically correct,” a claim rejected by Packer and Hoge. He also claimed the new test minimizes religious influences, distorts the motivations and actions of settlers in the 17th-to-19th centuries, and presents a skewed view of the nature of free enterprise.

Rep. Mike Dudgeon, R-Johns Creek, said the new test downplays “good things” and is generally too negative about U.S. history. Ligon echoed that sentiment saying the test reflects a “revisionist view” of American history.

The new AP test has also made enemies in Colorado, Oklahoma and Texas. In Oklahoma, the legality of teaching AP courses has been called into question while lawmakers filed a bill that would direct the state’s Board of Education to consider barring the use of state funds for AP history courses.

In Texas, a conservative Republican on the Texas Board of Education drafted a ceremonial resolution in September decrying “a radically revisionist view of American history,” but the education board’s own general counsel determined that its members had no jurisdiction to keep Texas students from taking the national test or to delay implementation of the new exam.

Ligon said if the College Board fails to comply with his request to scrap the test, the Georgia congressional delegation should push for reduction or elimination of federal funding for the New York non-profit.

By The Associated Press

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More States Push Back Against Common Core

Common Core continues to be a top concern in the states, with Mississippi and Wisconsin being the latest states taking steps to distance themselves from the controversial standards.

Mississippi is considering full repeal of the Common Core standards. State senators Michael Watson and Angela Burks introduced legislation to repeal the standards last month, with Watson telling Mississippi “will end up with our own standards that are better, higher and cleaner than Common Core.”

This measure follows Republican Gov. Phil Bryant’s December 2013executive order affirming Mississippi’s right to define their education standards.

The bill would create an advisory board to evaluate other state standards (using resources such as Fordham Institute’s State of State Standards), and introduce new Mississippi standards to the state department of education. This way the advisory board could craft a set of standards exclusively for Mississippi students, by borrowing from rigorous standards like California’s math and Massachusetts’s language arts standards, but also keeping strong standards of their own.

Common Core continues to be a top concern in the states, with Mississippi and Wisconsin being the latest states taking steps to distance themselves from the controversial standards.

Mississippi is considering full repeal of the Common Core standards. State senators Michael Watson and Angela Burks introduced legislation to repeal the standards last month, with Watson telling Mississippi “will end up with our own standards that are better, higher and cleaner than Common Core.”

This measure follows Republican Gov. Phil Bryant’s December 2013executive order affirming Mississippi’s right to define their education standards.

The bill would create an advisory board to evaluate other state standards (using resources such as Fordham Institute’s State of State Standards), and introduce new Mississippi standards to the state department of education. This way the advisory board could craft a set of standards exclusively for Mississippi students, by borrowing from rigorous standards like California’s math and Massachusetts’s language arts standards, but also keeping strong standards of their own.

In addition, in January, the Mississippi Board of Education voted to withdraw from the Partnership for the Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) consortium, which is one of the two tests aligned to Common Core, and requested proposals for new state tests on Feb. 2. Until a new test is adopted, however, the state will use NCS Pearson Inc. assessments. This was met with skepticism because Pearson signed a contract with the PARCC last year, leading to concerns that the new tests will be influenced by Common Core standards.

Mississippi is practicing competitive federalism, which is the process of states evaluating their current standards, keeping what is good, discarding what is bad, and using what has worked in other states. Competitive federalism is the opposite of one-size-fits-all approaches like Common Core.

Wisconsin is also moving away from Common Core standards. Earlier this month Gov. Scott Walker, R., Wis., cut state funding for the other Common Core-aligned exam, the Smarter Balanced assessment, in his budget proposal. The proposal doesn’t prohibit schools from using Common Core, but encourages district level innovation.

“I want high standards—and those decisions should be made by school board members and parents and others at the local level,” said Walker in his budget address.

Withdrawing from the Smarter Balanced consortium gives Wisconsin the opportunity to use a new test—perhaps approved by the University of Wisconsin-Madison—that could reflect state and district-driven standards.

Common Core began as an effort to establish uniform national standards and tests, and was incentivized by billions in federal funding and waivers from the onerous provisions of No Child Left Behind. It was developed in 2009 by Achieve Inc. with oversight from the privately-run National Governors Association and Council of Chief State School Officers, but was then promoted by the Obama administration. In the midst of a recession, 46 states signed on to the standards, agreeing to implement them by the 2014-15 school year.

To aid the implementation process, the federal government created two national tests aligned with the standards: the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers and the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortia. The Department of Education also created a “Technical Review Panel” to oversee the validity of assessment questions.

But as the deadline for implementation loomed closer, states began to realize the costs of adopting Common Core, both financial and in terms of their educational decision-making autonomy. By June 2014— two months before the implementation date— 19 states had either withdrawn from the tests or paused implementation of the standards. Four of the 19 (Indiana, Oklahoma, South Carolina and Louisiana) had exited the national standards completely.

UD-common-core-status-map (5)

Opposition to Common Core continues to build across the nation, driven largely by parents. Quality education is best supported and fostered by those closest to the children—local leadership, teachers and parents—who are best equipped to craft an education system that fosters upward mobility and opportunity for children in their state.


Portrait of Brittany Corona

Brittany Corona

Brittany Corona is a research assistant in Domestic Policy Studies at The Institute for Family, Community, and Opportunity at The Heritage Foundation.Read her research.

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Georgia Democrats offer counter to Deal’s school takeover plan

Senate Democratic leaders countered Gov. Nathan Deal’s school takeover proposal with their own plan to transform dysfunctional classrooms into “community schools” with access to health clinics, counselors and after-school tutors.

Deal’s office indicated it was open to the proposal, which would otherwise face long odds in the Republican-controlled Legislature. The plan, obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, could also serve as a rallying point for Democrats who oppose Deal’s bid to give the state unprecedented powers to take over distressed schools. It will be formally introduced Tuesday.

The governor needs bipartisan backing to pass his measure, and Democrats could demand he include elements of their proposal into his broader legislation in exchange for their support. Their proposal reflects the concerns of many Democrats who say more resources are needed to support the poverty-stricken communities that are home to most struggling schools.

The optional grant program would mostly target the lowest-performing Title I schools, which are generally located in districts containing a large concentration of students from low-income homes. The size of the program hasn’t been decided yet, but Senate sponsors are exploring ways to eliminate tax credits so they can cover the costs without raising taxes.

“‘We would hope to have a realistic conversation about the underlying causes that can’t be ignored,” said Senate Minority Leader Steve Henson, a sponsor of the proposal. “This would offer a school the tools to strengthen academic performance.”

Not an ‘either/or’

Aides to the governor, who has challenged critics to come up with a better idea, worked through the weekend to try to lock down the 38 senators needed to ensure his plan’s passage. He said through a spokesman that he would be willing to consider the Democrats’ proposal as an addition — rather than a rival — to his legislation.

“That idea would not run counter to what we’re proposing,” said Brian Robinson, the governor’s spokesman. “This doesn’t have to be an ‘either/or’ proposition.”

Deal’s proposal for a statewide “Opportunity School District” is his top legislative priority, and he said it’s needed to rescue thousands of students from distressed schools.

It would give the state new powers to shutter failing schools, convert them into charters or take control of them. In the latter scenario, the state would have the power to transfer teachers, fire principals and change what students are learning.

The proposal is cast as a constitutional amendment, and it would require a two-thirds vote in both chambers before landing on the ballot in 2016. That means Deal will have to hold most of the Republican caucus, which commands overwhelming majorities in each chamber of the Legislature, as well as entice a handful of Democrats to cross party lines to push it past the finish line.

Plan goes after poverty

Senate Democrats have emerged as the most forceful critics of Deal’s program. Wary of being cast as naysayers, their plan borrows from models in Kentucky and Cincinnati that aim to educate while also combating long-term poverty.

Cincinnati’s approach is based on the idea that schools can improve academics by removing socio-economic obstacles to learning such as hunger and the lack of health care. The school acts as a community hub where students can get their teeth cleaned, receive college advice and get dinner all without leaving the school’s campus.

The idea has drawn national attention and inspired replicas across the country. Advocates say the model has helped drive up the district’s graduation rate. But skeptics point out the district still trails the state average in several key academic indicators.

Under Georgia’s version, schools that decide to participate in the program would be required to offer at least two services in a list that includes child care, job-training programs, adult education courses, health services and after-school tutoring.

About 250 schools would be eligible for the grant program, which would be overseen by a leadership team that includes school officials, students and community members. Schools would be required to hire a community coordinator and submit regular reports to state officials.

“If we’re really being conservative about this, we would examine the places in the country that have long-term proven results,” Henson said. “What the governor is talking about doing is only changing a governance structure. This proposal addresses some of the underlying causes of failing schools.”

Divided Democrats

Former state schools Superintendent John Barge, a Republican who unsuccessfully challenged Deal in the GOP primary last year, said he explored similar community-based approaches during his four years in office.

“There’s merit to that model,” Barge said. “When children don’t feel secure and they don’t have food, clothing or shelter — the basic life needs — it’s very difficult for the school to move a child up the ladder.”

Democrats, however, are far from united on this approach. State Rep. Stacey Abrams, the party’s House leader, plans to join Deal next week on a fact-finding mission to Louisiana to learn more about his proposal.

She said she has several burning questions about Deal’s plan, including concerns about the metric used to determine whether a school is failing. But she also indicated she would not close the door to his initiative.

“We need to see the legislation evolve,” she said of Deal’s proposal. “What gets on there the first day is rarely what makes it to the end.”

By Greg Bluestein
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Staff writer Jaime Sarrio contributed to this article.

The Opportunity School District

  • It has the backing of Gov. Nathan Deal and Republican leaders.
  • The state would acquire vast new powers to take over failing schools, convert them into charters or shut them down.
  • A metric would be used that identifies 141 schools as “persistently failing,” making them eligible for takeover. The state would be allowed to take control of 20 of them a year and 100 overall.
  • Its superintendent would be allowed to withhold up to 3 percent of a school’s funding to cover administrative costs.

The Community School District

  • It is sponsored by Senate Minority Leader Steve Henson and other Democrats.
  • Schools in the grant program would have to offer child care, job training programs, summer school, parental education classes, health services, mentoring and other options.
  • A metric would be used that identifies about 250 schools eligible for grants.
  • Senate Democrats are exploring ways to end tax credits to pay for program.

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School leaders react to governor’s takeover proposal for failing schools

“Are you really more concerned about the adults who may be affected by these changes or are you more concerned about the outcome in the lives of the children?”
–Governor Deal

ATLANTA | Georgia would become one of several states authorized to take over “chronically failing” schools if Republican Gov. Nathan Deal can hold members of his own party while attracting Democrats and placating some school officials frustrated by the proposal.

Under Deal’s plan, a superintendent, appointed by and accountable to the governor, would select up to 20 schools deemed failing each year.

The superintendent then could make them into charters, close them or overhaul management.

Deal unveiled a constitutional amendment and accompanying legislation on Wednesday. Spokesman Brian Robinson said a trip to New Orleans with lawmakers and State Superintendent Richard Woods is the next step. The city has become Deal’s go-to example of a state intervention at struggling schools, but some Democrats have questioned whether the influx of donations and eager young teachers there after Hurricane Katrina would repeat in Georgia.

Deal’s office produced a list of schools that could be eligible, based on three years of student testing and other measures. Reaction from district leaders on that list ran from mild relief to opposition.

Two out of three schools in rural Dooly County were on the list. The district’s recently hired Superintendent Julie Harrelson said the state shouldn’t use a one-size-fits-all plan but she welcomed a new perspective.

“I don’t take it defensively,” Harrelson said. “I just want our kids to be successful, so if we need someone with fresh eyes with some authority that I don’t have, I welcome them.”

Other administrators argue they already are making progress, but could use financial help from the state, which cut millions from education spending as the recession hit.

DeKalb County Schools Superintendent Michael Thurmond said the 26 DeKalb schools on the list are among his district’s highest percentage of students receiving free or reduced-price lunch. Still, Thurmond said, 15 of the struggling schools reported student growth last year and don’t deserve the “failing” label Deal has used.

“The point is we have a model that’s working,” Thurmond said.

Deal needs two-thirds of state lawmakers to pass a constitutional amendment and put the question before voters in 2016.

In Dougherty County, Superintendent David Mosely is determined to get his six schools off that list by 2017, the proposal’s effective date. Mosely said the district was financially and academically “broken” when he was hired two years ago, but new principals and other changes are having an effect.

“There are no quick fixes in education,” he said. “It takes good teachers working every day for a long period of time.”

Republican Rep. Mike Dudgeon of Johns Creek said there is “strong support” for the idea, though some GOP lawmakers question removing a local education board’s authority.

“The state is sending at least half the money (to schools), so having a check and balance when it’s very clear the locals are not doing the job, I’m comfortable with that,” Dudgeon, vice chair of the House Education committee, said.

In a radio interview last week with conservative talk show host Erick Erickson, Deal questioned any opponents’ motives.

“I ask them ‘Are you really more concerned about the adults who may be affected by these changes or are you more concerned about the outcome in the lives of the children?’” Deal said.

He also challenged unhappy members of either party to present an alternative.

Senate Democrats will take the governor up on that offer, rolling out a plan this week. House Democrats are taking a wait-and-see approach, including Minority Leader Stacey Abrams of Atlanta. Abrams said in an interview on Friday that she wouldn’t comment on the proposal, introduced by Deal’s floor leader in the Senate, Republican Sen. Butch Miller of Gainesville.

Abrams said she plans to join the New Orleans group, with a focus on hearing from parents, students and teachers. She’s also looking for more detail from Deal on how schools will be chosen.

“Any question of such a radical departure from our normal operations, we have to be making certain that determining the schools eligible is a fair process and takes in all metrics,” Abrams said.


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Sides form — with some flexibility — over Georgia school takeover plan

Democratic opposition to Gov. Nathan Deal’s school takeover plan mounted Thursday as some local superintendents raised alarms about the sweeping proposal. But Republicans rallied behind Deal’s signature initiative, and the governor challenged critics to come up with a better idea.

The divisions were a preview of the contentious fight ahead over Deal’s plan to create a statewide “Opportunity School District” with the power to take control of schools deemed to be persistently failing. Under Deal’s proposal, the state would have final say over schools put into the district and could fire principals, transfer teachers and change the curriculum.

Many Republicans, who have commanding majorities in the state Legislature, voiced their support for the plan. But bipartisan backing will make or break the proposal, and Senate Democratic leaders said they were firmly against the measure even as their counterparts in the House took a more flexible approach.

The governor is moving aggressively to shape the debate. His aides met with clergy leaders Thursday to build support for the idea, and later this month he will lead a delegation to Louisiana, which has a similar program. In an interview Thursday, Deal urged its critics to confront the problem.

“What’s your idea? If you have no idea, you’re saying you’re satisfied with having failing schools in Georgia,” he said. “That is not acceptable to me. And I don’t think it should be acceptable to any member of the General Assembly.”

Democrats in the Senate plan to take him up on the offer. They will unveil a counterproposal built around the concept of “community schools” on Tuesday.

School leaders push back

Schools eligible for takeover under the plan would be those who scored less than 60 points on the state’s College and Career Ready Performance Index for three years in a row. An estimated 141 schools meet that definition, with more than 60 in metro Atlanta.

School superintendents pushed back on the argument that their schools are failing.

They said large numbers of their students are low-income, a historical educational disadvantage, or transient. Nearly every school that would be eligible for a takeover has more than 75 percent of its students who are eligible for free or reduced-price meals, a statistic used to measure poverty. Sixty-two percent of Georgia students are eligible for free or reduced-priced meals.

Among the critics was Clayton County Superintendent Luvenia Jackson, who said she is disappointed with the governor’s plan and said a “one-size-fits-all” approach doesn’t account for the diverse needs of the state’s school systems.

DeKalb County Superintendent Michael Thurmond, whose district has 26 schools on the list, said a more pressing priority would be to revise the state’s 30-year-old education funding formula to give more money to school districts with large percentages of low-income students. Deal has asked a study commission to vet the idea.

“This opens up an opportunity to have a long-delayed and much-needed conversation on how best to address generational poverty in Georgia,” Thurmond said.

Other educators signaled they were willing to consider the plan.

Sheila Nelloms is the principal of DeKalb’s Knollwood Elementary School, which is on the failing list. She said regular staff meetings to discuss student performance and twice-weekly reading and math tutorials have helped the school’s index scores tick up 12 points, but it’s still well below 60. A school needs the freedom to try different approaches to help students, she said. Nelloms said she’s not nervous about a potential state takeover.

“I’m going to do what it takes to make sure students succeed,” she said. “I’m an educator at heart.”

The plan would allow the state to run schools, close them, partner with local school districts or convert them into charter schools. The special district would be overseen by a new superintendent who would report directly to the governor.

Passage will require votes from Democrats

Because it’s set up as a constitutional amendment, it requires a two-thirds vote in both legislative chambers before it could be put to voters on the 2016 ballot. To cross the finish line, Deal will have to persuade a handful of Democrats to support the bill along with most of the Republican caucus.

Getting those crossover votes will not be easy, and opposition was particularly fierce among Democrats in the Senate.

Senate Minority Leader Steve Henson has called the plan an “educational mirage,” and state Sen. Vincent Fort, the chamber’s No. 2 Democrat, circulated a printout detailing more than $170 million in austerity cuts to Atlanta Public Schools. There are more than two dozen schools from the district on Deal’s list of failing schools.

“This is not something that would get my vote,” said state Sen. Elena Parent, who will be part of the delegation Deal will lead to Louisiana. She said it was difficult to compare Georgia with Louisiana because of the large flow of philanthropic gifts that went to New Orleans schools following Hurricane Katrina.

“There’s no apples-to-apples comparison here,” said Parent, D-Atlanta, who added: “It will undoubtedly be a tough sell.”

Many Republicans praised the proposal as a bold step. Among them was state Sen. Fran Millar, R-Dunwoody, who said it might be the “salvation” for DeKalb constituents long frustrated by distressed schools.

“No one wants to admit they failed, but if schools are not working, we need to change the way it’s working,” Millar said.

Some remain silent, which is significant

Just as notable were the powerful groups and figures who fell silent on Thursday. State Schools Superintendent Richard Woods, who will attend the Louisiana trip, declined to comment through a spokesman. The Georgia School Boards Association also has yet to take a stance on the bill.

Another telling response was the “no comment” from House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams, who leads Democrats in that chamber. She and her deputies have taken a more conciliatory approach to the measure, refusing to attack it and praising its intent.

Parents of students in failing schools, meanwhile, were far more effusive. Donna Priest-Brown, a co-president of the South DeKalb Parent Council, said she’s not convinced funneling more money into failing south DeKalb schools would improve them.

“We’ve put in so much money, with Race to the Top and No Child Left Behind, but the (index) numbers are not changing,” she said, adding: “Whatever can turn around the school system, whatever it takes to do that, that’s what we need to do.”

Governor: Money alone won’t fix schools

Deal and his allies will mount a furious defense of the initiative over the next few weeks. In the interview Thursday, he dashed off a string of statistics to counter the criticisms of Thurmond and others who point to a funding lapse.

“I would say to them that 96 percent of those that are failing schools pay more than the average of the state of $8,400 per child per year. And about 26 percent of those spend considerably more than the state average,” Deal said. “If they say that money alone will fix this, then the statistics and the information that we have does not bear that out.”

Some school superintendents, he said, will likely move more proactively to address their distressed schools now that a school takeover looms. But he challenged those that don’t agree with his proposal to take a stand.

“If they’re saying they can do a better job if we left them to do it,” he said, “then the question becomes, why haven’t you already done it, and what is your plan to make it better?”

Staff writers Tammy Joyner and Sonam Vashi contributed to this article.

Comprehensive coverage

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has Georgia’s largest team at the Gold Dome for this year’s legislative session. To find the most expertise on issues that matter to taxpayers, go to

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The plan that could reshape Georgia’s failing schools

More than 100 of Georgia’s most troubled schools could face state takeover under a plan unveiled Wednesday by Gov. Nathan Deal that would give his office unprecedented new powers over local schools.

The plan would create a statewide “Opportunity School District” with authority to seize control of schools deemed to be perennially failing. The state would have total authority over the schools put into the special district and could remove principals and teachers, change what students are learning and control the schools’ budgets.

Deal’s office estimates 141 schools would be eligible, including more than 60 in metro Atlanta. The plan would allow the state to run schools, close them, partner with local school districts to run them or convert them into charter schools. The special district would be overseen by a new superintendent who would report directly to the governor.

It is the governor’s signature education proposal of the year, and comes after weeks of “listening sessions” with skeptical legislators. They would have to pass the initiative overwhelmingly for it to be put to voters on the 2016 ballot. The governor has framed it as a constitutional amendment, which requires two-thirds support in the House and the Senate. That means he’ll need to hold most Republicans, who have commanding majorities in both chambers, and lure a few Democrats to pass the measure.

“When we talk about helping failing schools, we’re talking about rescuing children,” said Deal. “I stand firm on the principle that every child can learn, and I stand equally firm in the belief that the status quo isn’t working.”

The plan defines “persistently failing schools” that would be targeted as those scoring below 60 for three years in a row on the College and Career Performance Index – the state’s annual report card for school performance. Annual enrollment in the program would be capped at 20 schools a year.

Under the current plan, 27 Atlanta Public Schools would be eligible, more than any other district in the state. DeKalb is close behind with 26. Fulton has seven and Clayton three. Two state-approved charter schools are on the list of low performers as well. No schools from Cobb or Gwinnett are on the list.

Atlanta Superintendent Meria Carstarphen said in a statement the district is already making changes it hopes will improve student performance.

“We hope that through building trusting, collaborative relationships with our communities that APS will be able to achieve positive outcomes for our students without state intervention,” she said.

Opposition to the plan is already mounting. Democrats say they plan to release their own plan to tackle failing schools Monday. Senate Minority Leader Steve Henson, D-Tucker, called it an “educational mirage” and called for an increase in school funding after years of billions of dollars in austerity cuts to education.

“Yes, we have a problem with failing schools, and yes we need to correct the problem,” he said. “But we don’t accomplish this by privatizing the public school system, denying equal education to all Georgia students and by refusing to address the fact that we have short-changed our state education system by $8 billion over the past 12 years.”

The Opportunity School District would be capped at 100 schools overall. Schools would stay in the district for a minimum of five years and not more than 10 years. Those provisions aim to address critics who worry the proposal gives the governor’s office too much power and includes no exit plan for schools that recover.

Some families of students at long-struggling schools cheered the new plan. Priscilla Davenport said her daughter, who attends DeKalb’s McNair High School, would bolt to another school in a heartbeat if not for the college program she’s taking at Georgia State University.

“It’s frustrating,” said Davenport. “I’ve been frustrated for years at McNair’s performance. And I haven’t seen any change. It’s time for a new approach.”

The legislation comes as Deal has put off other campaign promises, such as a vow to overhaul the 30-year-old education funding formula, until next year. His staff has met legislators to let them air their concerns, and he plans to lead a bipartisan delegation this month to Louisiana, which has a similar statewide plan.

Still, it’s been a slow roll-out for the plan, introduced more than a quarter of the way through a 40-day legislative session that’s expected to end April 2. On Wednesday, lawmakers in both the House and Senate heard for the first time about how similar state-run districts are performing in Louisiana and Tennessee.

Opposition, meanwhile, has built up during the runup to the bill’s formal introduction.

Tim Callahan, spokesman for the Professional Association of Georgia Educators, the state’s largest teacher advocacy group, said, “We are certainly open to the discussion but we remain concerned that this concept may not lend itself to Georgia and that simply changing the administrative structures and management of schools filled with impoverished students struggling to learn does little to address the root causes of their struggles.”

Superintendent Richard Woods, whose office could be marginalized by the move, declined comment Wednesday but has hinted at his discomfort. And some lawmakers from both parties are wary of giving the state broad new powers.

The measure’s chief supporters, though, said a school rescue plan is long overdue. State Sen. Butch Miller, R-Gainesville, said a bold approach is sorely needed.

“It’s not a one-size-fits-all,” said Miller, who sponsored the bill. “You would have a different address, a different business plan for each individual school. And I would say to those educators who might push back and challenge this that, if they know what to do why aren’t they doing it?”

By Greg Bluestein, Jaime Sarrio and Kristina Torres – The Atlanta Journal-Constitution


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