A curious hush has fallen over the negotiations involving Gov. Nathan Deal’s proposal to give the state broad new powers to take over failing schools as the Republican and his aides work in quiet meetings across the Capitol to lay the groundwork for his sweeping plan.
He and his allies have held listening sessions with legislators, educators and advocacy groups to try to soothe concerns. He has told mayors and county commissioners it will help bring more jobs to communities. And he’s asked a handful of legislators to travel with him to Louisiana to see for themselves the impact of a similar program.
A draft of the constitutional amendmentis expected to be filed this week, and the House and Senate education committees will hold a joint meeting Wednesday to hear a pitch for the plan. The governor will still have plenty of work to do after that. He’ll need to hold most of the Republican caucus and lure a few Democrats to pass the measure, which requires a two-thirds majority. The session is already one-quarter through its 40-day calendar, and opposition to the plan is mounting.
Superintendent Richard Woods, while offering no comment until the proposal is released, has already hinted a level of discomfort with the plan. Senate Democrats have put together a list of more than 140 schools in struggling, mostly black neighborhoods that may be considered failing under the legislation to underscore an argument that the problem centers more on resources than governance. And while most lawmakers are taking a wait-and-see approach, some Democrats are already rallying opposition. State Sen. Vincent Fort, the chamber’s No. 2 Democrat and one of the proposal’s most outspoken critics, said Deal has done little to build confidence in his schools policy after billions of dollars in austerity cuts to education.
“All of that does not make me confident that these people should be the ones to take over failing schools,” said Fort, who plans to propose more investment in community-based education programs. “To say we’re going to take over school systems and change the governance without changing the funding for impactful programs doesn’t make sense.”
The governor’s aides recognize it will be a tougher legislative battle than his earlier initiatives, such as the sweeping criminal justice overhauls that enjoyed near-unanimous support in the General Assembly. That helps explain the slow rollout of the measure, which Deal said in an interview is crucial to work out concerns among skeptical legislators.
“We’re providing them with information we hope will be important for them to know,” the governor said. “We’re drafting that legislation now, and we’ve received good advice and feedback.”
The constitutional amendment, when it surfaces, would give the state the authority to shutter failing schools, run them directly or convert them to charters. The proposal would create an “opportunity school district” with its own oversight authority and a superintendent who would report to the governor.
While the broad strokes are finalized, some of the specifics are still being hashed out. One sticking point concerns the mechanism that would make a school eligible for the state takeover. Initially, Deal’s aides estimated roughly 11 percent of the state’s schools would be eligible, but some want to confine the new powers to only the worst of the worst.
The sessions with lawmakers are part informational and part sounding board. State Rep. Ron Stephens, R-Savannah, said he offered the governor’s team some marketing advice at one of the meetings.
“They’re couching it as a state takeover of failing schools, and I told them that’s not the way they should couch it,” Stephens said. “There is really zero safety net for these failing kids, and this could be an education safety net. These kids don’t have any options, and if you don’t think that doesn’t directly affect economic development, then holy cow.”
Expect Deal to turn to that familiar argument as he tries to build his case. He told hundreds of mayors and county commissioners at a recent Georgia Municipal Association meeting that, like it or not, the reputation of their communities is determined by their schools.
“You’re all in that boat together,” he told them. “Why does that matter to you? It ought to matter on several fronts. (Failing schools) is not something you include in your chamber of commerce advertisement when you want to attract business. It’s one of those things you want to explain away. And it’s time we stopped explaining it away and started to change it.”
The governor’s upcoming trip to Louisiana seeks to close the gap with legislators over the proposal. He plans to bring a bipartisan group of legislators from both chambers to tour New Orleans schools that operate under a similar statewide plan called a recovery school district. Consider it partly a fact-finding mission and partly a persuasion tour.
He also may have some convincing to do with Woods, the superintendent who took office last month.
Woods recently made his first official school visits, purposefully choosing two struggling schools near Athens. He started the day looking at data points and worrying about “weak leadership,” he wrote in a blog post, but ended it confident the schools can hold their own with counterparts with much higher scores.
“There is a place for accountability and I am fully committed to addressing the issue of chronically underperforming schools head-on,”he wrote. “But I believe that we need to take a measured and targeted surgical approach.”
By Greg Bluestein
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution