Monthly Archives: March 2015

Voters set to decide on a plan for failing schools Read more: The Marietta Daily Journal – Voters set to decide on a plan for failing schools

MARIETTA — Cobb’s lawmakers mostly supported a bill that would establish a statewide school district for failing schools, although some were adamantly opposed to it.

A constitutional amendment to officially approve the district will go to Georgia voters in November 2016.

Senate Bill 133 seeks to create an “Opportunity School District,” which would give the state the authority to take over 20 schools per year deemed to be failing if they score below a 60 on the College and Career Performance Index three years in a row, according to the governor’s office.

Senate Bill 133 passed the Georgia Senate 38-17 on March 5 and the House on Wednesday by a vote of 108-53.

Cobb’s state representatives mostly voted along party lines, with all Republicans voting in favor of the measure and all Democrats — except Stacey Evans (D-Smyrna) — voting against it.

“I voted in favor of the bill because we have students who are sitting in schools that are failing them, and we owe it to those students to try another way to turn those schools around,” Evans said.

Evans said she doesn’t think education is a partisan issue.

“I look at each measure on its merits without regard to the party that proposed it and, to me, this is a proposal that’s a step in the right direction to help students,” Evans said. “It’s as simple as that.”

State Sen. Lindsey Tippins (R-west Cobb), who chairs the Senate Education Committee and cosponsored both the bill and resolution, said he supports the bill because the state cannot let schools continue to fail, yet he noted fixing the problem isn’t going to be an easy task.

“I won’t tell you that I think it’s a perfect bill, but overall, I think it’s a step we’re going to have to take to address schools that are constantly failing (and) either lack the ability or the inclination to raise performance standards,” Tippins said.

Tippins, a former Cobb school board chairman, said he doesn’t think the state is always the answer for schools with performance issues. Instead, he said the state should assess schools on an individual basis to see what is causing them to underperform.

“I think there are a variety of reasons why schools fail, and I won’t say that every low-performing school, the state can step in and fix it,” Tippins said, noting local superintendents and administrators should be a part of the process.

“I think the school takeover ought to absolutely be the last resort,” he said.

State Rep. Sam Teasley (R-Marietta) said he voted for the bill because he believes the Legislature has a responsibility to all students, not just those in their respective districts.

“We are blessed to have two fine school systems with two school boards which are responsive to the needs of parents and students in our community. Not every community has that,” Teasley said. “In the communities where schools have consistently underperformed and are not making progress, I believe we have a duty to step in and do what is best for the student.”

BALLOT MEASURE

Because the measure would require a constitutional amendment, state lawmakers also voted on Senate Resolution 287, which would send the amendment to the November 2016 ballot to be voted on by Georgia citizens.

Voters will answer the following yes or no question: “Shall the Constitution of Georgia be amended to allow the state to intervene in chronically failing public schools in order to improve student performance?”

Senate Resolution 287 passed the Georgia Senate 38-15 and the Georgia House 121-47.

State Rep. David Wilkerson (D-Austell) voted against the bill and said the wording of the ballot measure is too vague.

“It’s going to say, ‘Do you want to let us help you fix failing schools?’ Who’s going to vote against that?” Wilkerson said. “The only way a constitutional amendment fails is if it has the word ‘tax’ in it.”

As it stands now, Wilkerson said he expects it to pass the resolution because it doesn’t explain what would be approved, noting how different it is from when people run for office.

“The ballot doesn’t say, ‘Do you want to re-elect David Wilkerson to continue to fight for your values and do the best possible job any legislator could ever do?’ It doesn’t say that, but that’s the equivalent to what these constitutional amendments say,” Wilkerson said. “The wording on a ballot should tell people what it does.”

Likewise, Evans also thinks it will pass. She said parents are usually more concerned with how a school is doing rather than who is in charge of it.

“So, if the school’s not doing well, I think they’d be excited and welcome someone else is coming in and trying something different to turn that school around,” Evans said. “So, I think it has a very high chance of passage.”

The Opportunity School District, made up of struggling schools, would have its own superintendent who reports to the governor and would have the ability to either control the management of the school personally, share management with the local school board, convert it into a charter school or close the school.

Wilkerson said he is concerned the bill will give too much power to the governor, who already appoints the state school board.

“It adds another layer of bureaucracy that people will not have an opportunity to manage,” Wilkerson said. “As a legislator, it makes me feel like we have now turned over all responsibility to the governor for those schools.”

ASSESSING SCORES

The governor’s office has identified 141 schools in the state — about 6 percent of all schools — that would be eligible based on their performing index scores.

If the amendment passes, the new district’s superintendent could choose as many as 20 schools per year and the district would be limited to 100 schools at any one time. The schools would stay in the district for no less than five years, but no more than 10, according to the governor’s office.

Based on the standard laid out by the governor, none of the schools in Marietta City Schools or the Cobb County School District would qualify as “failing.”

Wilkerson said he is also skeptical of how the schools are determined to be “chronically failing,” noting the state’s measurement tool — the College and Career Performance Index — is a vague indicator of academic success.

“If you ask people what goes into the CCRPI score, they will not be able to tell you,” Wilkerson said. “There’s some serious issues with the underlying data that we’re using to measure these schools.”

Wilkerson pointed to the School Climate Star Ratings — which measures the “culture” of a school by evaluating its social, emotional and physical safety — as a key example of state scores not being indicative of true performance.

Argyle Elementary School received 1 out of 5 stars, which means it has an “unsatisfactory” school climate.

Cobb Superintendent Chris Ragsdale said at the time Argyle Elementary received 1 star because not enough parents participated in the surveys.

“The actual reason is less than 15 participants returned the surveys for that entire school. When you don’t meet a minimum number of surveys, your score is actually lowered,” Ragsdale said. “So that one school that received the 1 star was due to not enough parents returning the surveys.”

Wilkerson said that was a prime example of how scores and reality do not always align.

“So, you’re telling me that a school can be a great school but because your parents either don’t want to or not be able to — whatever the reason was they did not turn those forms in — you’re telling me the school climate is below average and you’re punishing the schools for something the parents should be doing themselves,” Wilkerson said.

State Sen. Michael Rhett (D-Marietta) voted against both the bill and resolution. He said they don’t leave leeway for schools that might be “chronically failing” but improving their scores.

“Some schools may be improving and show a progression, but would those schools be allowed to continue their progression or would they be taken over by the state?” Rhett asked.

Ragsdale also cautioned against identifying a school by a single, standardized test score.

“I think that we’re approaching a slippery slope where we’re allowing students and/or schools to become nothing more than a test score,” Ragsdale has said, noting it is a dangerous path to go down because there are many factors that go into whether a student, school or district is successful or not.

Read more: The Marietta Daily Journal – Voters set to decide on a plan for failing schools

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Filed under Legislation, Opportunity School District

Bibb school system has more to worry about than Gov. Deal

When Gov. Nathan Deal was running for re-election last year, he promised his focus would sit on education. While many may not like how he’s focused on education, he is keeping his promise. The General Assembly has given approval to his constitutional amendment proposal that, if approved by voters, will allow the state the authority to take over troubled schools (defined as scoring less than 60 on the College and Career Ready Performance Index for three consecutive years). There are 139 such schools in the state out of 2,184.

If the measure is approved in November 2016, the state will set up an “Opportunity School District” patterned after similar initiatives in Louisiana and Tennessee. The Opportunity School District will have its own superintendent answerable only to the governor. The state district would take over 20 schools per year with a maximum of 100. Bibb County has 10.07 percent of the state’s failing schools. While having 14 schools targeted by the governor is horrible, Atlanta Public Schools have 27 on the list and DeKalb County has 25. Those figures should give no comfort. Atlanta Public Schools have 101 facilities, and 26 percent are listed as failing. De­Kalb has 133 schools, and 19 percent are failing. Thirty-four percent of Bibb’s schools are in the failing category.

Will the new Opportunity School District sweep into Macon? Time is on our side. The earliest such a district could get started is the 2017-18 school year. That gives new Superintendent Curtis Jones time to turn those schools around, but there is a more pressing issue staring the Bibb County school board in the face than the governor. AdvancED, the accrediting institution, gave the system 24 months to clean up its governance act. Time has just about run out. The board’s homework assignment, fixing the governance and leadership issues, is incomplete as of this writing.

While some on the board believe Bibb could become a national model for other districts that find themselves sideways with AdvancED, that’s hard to conceive. The new incomplete board handbook is a hand-me-down from DeKalb County that was borrowed from an Austin, Texas, district. We guess imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, but it’s nowhere near innovative. Other board members think AdvancED will give the district a pass because the work is in progress.

We don’t understand the distinction the board uses to differentiate between items that are “incomplete” and those that are a “work in progress.” Either way, the homework isn’t finished, and there’s not a dog around to blame for eating it.

By Telegraph Editorial Board
MACON.com

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Filed under Bibb County, Legislation, Nathan Deal, Opportunity School District

Georgia colleges cut tuition to nearby out-of-state students

Students in neighboring states could soon attend some Georgia colleges at much cheaper in-state tuition rates under a plan being implemented by the state’s University System.

The initiative is aimed at colleges predominantly in South Georgia that have had declining enrollments.

Out-of-state tuition rates paid by non-Georgia residents are about three times more than in-state rates at most Georgia colleges.

The state’s Board of Regents, the University System’s governing body, voted Wednesday to update tuition waiver policies.

Georgia colleges already have agreements with certain counties in states bordering Georgia that allows students in those jurisdictions to attend college here at the lower rate. The new proposal would expand the agreements to prospective students throughout the entire neighboring states.

University System Chancellor Hank Huckaby addressed the enrollment declines during a budget presentation to state lawmakers earlier this year. Huckaby identified about 15 colleges, mainly in South Georgia, that had been hard hit by changes to federal financial aid, state policies limiting remedial classes offered at University System schools and competition from other higher education institutions.

To help the schools, the system is also moving from a funding formula based on enrollment to one based on performance measures like retention and graduation.

System officials hope to have the affected schools identified and the new policy implemented this fall.

University System of Georgia enrollment declines

The number of students these colleges had in the fall of 2014 represented a decline from their peak enrollment.

Albany State University: 3,910 students in the fall of 2014; a 16.15 percent decline from peak enrollment

Armstrong State University (Savannah): 7,094 students; 7.65 percent decline

Bainbridge State College 2,470 students; 33.89 percent decline

College of Coastal Georgia (Brunswick) 3,008 students; 13.41 percent decline

Dalton State College 4,854 students; 18.94 percent decline

Darton State College (Albany) 5,623 students; 12.09 percent decline

East Georgia State College (Swainsboro) 2,910 students; 15.28 percent decline

Fort Valley State University 2,594 students; 33.42 percent decline

Georgia Perimeter College (Decatur) 21,371 students; 20.84 percent decline

Georgia Regents University (Augusta) 8,530 students; 15.13 percent decline

Georgia Southwestern State University (Americus) 2,666 students; 12.48 percent decline

Gordon State College (Barnesville) 4,047 students; 19.21percent decline

Middle Georgia State College (Macon) 7,927 students; 22.50 percent decline

South Georgia State College (Waycross) 2,611 students; 21.43 percent decline

Valdosta State University 11,563 students; 11.66 percent decline

Source: University System of Georgia

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Filed under Georgia Education

New Trials for DeKalb School District Corruption Convicts Were Wrong

The Georgia Court of Appeals has agreed with prosecutors that DeKalb County Superior Court Judge Cynthia Becker was wrong to reverse the felony corruption convictions of a former county school district administrator and her ex-husband.

The decision by the three-judge appeals panel on Wednesday extends a roller-coaster ride for the defendants, who were released from prison after Becker’s surprise order last fall. The appeals court vacated Becker’s order granting a new trial to former schools chief operating officer Pat Reid.

Judge William Ray II wrote for the panel that even though Becker didn’t believe the testimony of Reid’s co-defendant and former boss, Crawford Lewis, Becker did not fully weigh Lewis’ testimony against the remaining evidence before granting a new trial to Reid. The court remanded Reid’s case to the trial court for further consideration of Reid’s motion for new trial.

The panel also reversed Becker’s order granting a new trial to Reid’s ex-husband, architect Tony Pope, stating she lacked authority over that matter.

A county grand jury indicted Reid, Pope and Lewis, the former schools superintendent, for conspiracy and theft in July 2013. The charges stemmed from allegations they manipulated school construction contracts for personal gain.

In October 2013, Lewis pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor obstruction charge in exchange for his testimony at trial against Reid and Pope. A trial jury convicted Reid and Pope in November 2013 of racketeering. Reid also was convicted of theft.

Reid received a 15-year prison sentence, and Pope received an eight-year prison sentence.

Lewis’ plea agreement with the DeKalb district attorney’s office called for a sentence of 12 months of probation. But Becker rejected that part of the deal and instead sentenced Lewis to a year in prison.

“Without challenging the truthfulness of Lewis’ testimony, the trial judge—admittedly incensed by what she considered to be the ‘abhorrent’ criminal conduct of all involved—emphasized that Lewis was ‘a public official, this was on his watch, he stood by. And then he hindered and interfered with and tried to stop the completion of a rightful, lawful investigation,'” Ray wrote in the opinion, quoting Becker’s words at Lewis’ sentencing.

Lewis then filed a motion for reconsideration, which Becker denied. The appeals court found Becker “changed her rationale for refusing to consummate the previously agreed upon plea deal, and stated for the first time that her rejection of Lewis’ plea and the resultant sentence were based upon ‘the credibility, the believability, the probability or the improbability of (Lewis’) testimony.'”

Lewis appealed, and the DA’s office—concerned about its credibility in making plea deals—took Lewis’ side. The Court of Appeals last October remanded Lewis’ case to Becker so she could identify specific testimony by Lewis that she considered to be questionable. In a footnote of that opinion, the court implied that if the credibility of Lewis’ testimony was in question, then the validity of Reid’s and Pope’s convictions should also be questioned.

Becker responded before the appeals court could send its remittitur, pointing out pieces of Lewis’ testimony she found untruthful and ordering new trials for Reid and Pope.

The Court of Appeals responded, halting her orders and the release of Reid and Pope from prison.

Reid and Pope had indeed filed motions for new trials, but Pope’s attorney withdrew his motion just before Becker entered her order and filed a notice of appeal. The DA’s office has alleged that this action was the result of ex parte communications between Becker and Pope’s lawyer.

Because Pope no longer had a pending motion for new trial, the Court of Appeals on Wednesday found that Becker’s order related to Pope was improper as a matter of law.

Becker later acknowledged that she was the subject of an investigation by the Judicial Qualifications Commission but said she would step down March 1 to get married. Gov. Nathan Deal received a short list of candidates from his Judicial Nominating Commission nearly two months ago but has not yet made an appointment.

DeKalb Superior Court Judge Gregory Adams granted Reid and Pope bond in December.

A spokeswoman for DeKalb District Attorney Robert James had no comment.

Reid’s attorney, Tony Axam, said his client will remain free on bond while the trial court considers her motion for new trial. Axam also said he is confident that Lewis’ testimony was crucial for prosecutors and so the remaining evidence would not be enough to convict his client.

However, Axam seemed perplexed that another judge, one who did not witness Lewis’ testimony first hand, will be the one to decide whether Reid should get a new trial.

“I contend only Judge Becker can talk about whether Crawford Lewis passed the smell test,” he said.

Axam said he may consider subpoenaing Becker as a witness.

Pope’s attorney, John Petrey, could not be reached for comment.

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Filed under DeKalb Schools

States Across the Nation Pursuing Education Savings Accounts

There is growing interest by states in Education Savings Account (ESA) programs, with at least 22 state legislatures pursuing or considering the policy in 2015. The programs take funds that otherwise would be spent educating children in traditional public schools and sets them aside into accounts controlled by parents.

The parents then can use the money to customize education plans for their children. The accounts are particularly beneficial for families that have students with disabilities because the funds also can be used for expenses such as therapy and educational aids.

Arizona became the first state to pass an ESA bill in 2011 and Florida passed the country’s second program last year. Both target students with disabilities. This year, ESA bills have been filed in 14 states, with at least 8 others seriously considering the policy this session.

ESA MAP

ESAs create a system of education that is both accountable and truly personalized for each child. Examples of how parents can use the funds include the following:

  • Private school tuition
  • Tutoring
  • Therapy for students with disabilities
  • Instructional materials/curriculum
  • Online programs/courses
  • Á-la-carte public school courses
  • Exam fees
  • Savings for future college costs

The key is customization. ESAs allow parents to plan for their child’s unique needs. They create an entirely customized and flexible approach to education, where the ultimate goal is maximizing each child’s natural learning abilities.

For example, the parents of a visually impaired child could pay for private school tuition, hire a tutor with expertise in teaching visually-impaired students, and put any leftover funds into a college savings plan.

Parents of a student with autism could send their child to a private school for half of the day and spend the remaining funds on educationally-related therapies and educational software that allows them to direct some of their child’s education at home.

There are numerous options. Parents can homeschool children in subjects they know, use vetted online providers for other subjects, and hire tutors for courses in which their children struggle.

Such out-of-the-box approaches to education are not possible through the traditional public school funding model in which parents are limited to options provided by their school districts. Parents know when a school is not meeting their child’s needs. An ESA empowers these moms and dads with the financial resources to choose better alternatives.

Through an ESA, education is no longer “use it or lose it.” Parents decide where the best values are, and they have the ability to direct their child’s funds in the most efficient way.

Students and families are better served and at no additional cost to the state.

 


About the author

Adam Peshek

Adam Peshek is State Policy Director of School Choice for the Foundation for Excellence in Education. Previously, Adam was legislative director for the Foundation for Florida’s Future and a research associate at the Reason Foundation. He received his undergraduate degree from Florida State University and is currently a graduate student at Johns Hopkins.

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Filed under School Choice

Teachers group lines up against Nathan Deal’s school-rescue plan

The Georgia teachers group sparked into existence by changes to state insurance policies has taken aim at Gov. Nathan Deal’s effort to rescue troubled schools in Georgia. From the Facebook page of TRAGIC:

Having Washington dictate a top-down approach for Georgia’s local schools doesn’t work, and it won’t work coming from Atlanta, either. Every school within every district has its own student and parent population, and this means every school has individual needs and issues, which its community will understand better than an Atlanta bureaucrat.


This bill does nothing to address the root causes of failing schools: poverty, lack of parental involvement, and low student engagement will not be fixed by a state take-over. The only programs that have helped turn these types of failing schools around involve engaging all stakeholders in programs designed by those same stakeholders. This requires time, energy, and funding.

This accusation may require some sorting out:

By this law, any school deemed failing for three consecutive years on the Career College Readiness Performance Index (CCRPI) may be closed and have their building shuttered for three years: no classes, no school, the facility is closed. However, the state can then give that building, paid for by taxpayers, to a for-profit charter school free of charge.

The charter school doesn’t just get the building, however, everything within the school building “including, but not limited to textbooks, technology, media resources, instructional equipment, and all other resources” shall “remain within the facility and be available for use by the opportunity school.” (Senate Bill 133, pg 15, lines 239-242). This clause legally grants the OSD Superintendent the power to declare a school failing and then hand over the entire building and facility to a for-profit charter school, transferring real estate, equipment, and materials purchased with public funds over to private companies.

By: Jim Galloway, Greg Bluestein, Daniel Malloy
AJC

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Filed under Legislation, Nathan Deal

Georgia House panel revives education savings accounts bill

ATLANTA (AP) — A bill letting parents use state dollars toward private school tuition or other education expenses could receive a House floor vote as soon as Wednesday after a last-minute jumpstart from a key tax policy committee.

The proposal from Rep. Mark Hamilton, R-Cumming, would allow parents to set up an “education savings account” and sweep the state’s share of money for that student into it – about $4,400 using this year’s figures. Federal and local dollars would stay with the public school district.

Hamilton said the bill lets parents choose the best strategy for their child, whether that’s a private school, additional tutoring programs or home schooling. Other supporters back it as a way to customize education for kids with disabilities, chronic illnesses or students who have been bullied.

“Sometimes parents know the best for their children, and this is simply giving them a pathway if they want to exercise that,” Hamilton said this week.

The bill got a hearing but no vote in the House’s Education committee. The House Ways and Means committee, which typically handles tax policy, took it up this week.

Friday is a key deadline for lawmakers. Bills must pass their chamber of origin by then to maintain a chance at becoming law.

Arizona and Florida have instituted similar programs, and lawmakers in a dozen states including Georgia are debating legislation this year, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Some opponents consider `ESA’ programs an end-run around state constitutions that prevent public funds from being spent on religious schools.

In Georgia, the state’s School Board Association and other education stakeholders have described Hamilton’s bill as a voucher under another name. At a February hearing, several speakers representing teachers, school boards and superintendents urged lawmakers to turn the issue over to an education reform commission formed by Gov. Nathan Deal rather than moving ahead.

Rep. Mickey Stephens, a Savannah Democrat and retired teacher who sits on the Ways and Means committee, this week called the proposal “dressing up a voucher and making it look like a scholarship.”

“If you can afford to send your kids to private school, you don’t need a voucher,” he said.

Georgia has a tuition tax credit program, which lets individuals get a credit for donating toward private school scholarships managed by nonprofit providers, and a special needs scholarship for students with disabilities or other eligibility requirements.

Hamilton’s bill disqualifies students beginning kindergarten or first grade that year from participating, an attempt to address concerns that the state would subsidize private or home school for parents who never intended to use public schools. Many other details would be determined by the Governor’s Office of Student Achievement, an agency focused on student testing and performance.

Students would have to attend public schools for at least a year to be eligible for an account. The bill caps participation at about 8,500 students statewide in the 2015-2016 school year and 17,000 additional students the following year. All caps would end in the third year.

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Filed under Legislation, School Choice