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.

By KATHLEEN FOODY
ASSOCIATED PRESS
http://onlineathens.com/

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