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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