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.”
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.”
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