Opportunity school’s fate to be discussed at Town Hall
This fall, Georgia voters will decide the fate of the Opportunity School District (OSD) that has been proposed by Governor Nathan Deal. A “yes” vote on Amendment 1 supports creation of the OSD; a “no” vote on Amendment 1 opposes the creation of OSD. Early voting begins Oct. 17, 2016.
The Newton County and Rockdale County school systems conducted a joint town hall meeting Thursday to discuss why both school boards have passed resolutions opposing the OSD. Featured speakers where Margaret Ciccarelli, Director of Legislative Affairs for the Professional Association of Georgia
Educators, and Donna Fleming, Organizational Specialist for the National Education Association.
Ciccarelli said voters should not be fooled by the language of Amendment 1, “It sounds wonderful, but that is not the end of the story,” This concern was echoed by Samantha Fuhrey, Superintendent for Newton County School System, who said, “I fear voters will be swayed by the language of the amendment because it sounds glittery,” Fuhrey said, “but the implications of the OSD for children might be harmful.”
Registered voters may visit the Georgia Secretary of State’s “My Voter Page” (mvp.sos.ga.gov/MVP/mvp.do) to see a sample ballot and read the language of Amendment 1. However, that language is as follows, “Provides greater flexibility and state account- ability to fix failing schools through increasing community involvement. Shall the Constitution of Georgia be amended to allow the state to intervene in chronically failing public schools in order to improve student performance?”
Ciccarelli said that sounds good, but alternative language drafted by Georgia State Senator Vincent Fort is closer to the truth about what Georgia citizens are being asked to decide. He put it this way, “Shall the Constitution of Georgia be amended to allow an appointee of the Governor to take over local school operation, buildings, and control of all federal, state, and local funding if a school has low scores on standardized tests or for any other reason a future legislature may allow?” His language will not appear on the ballot.
If Amendment 1 and OSD are approved this fall, it will give the State of Georgia the power to take over the operation of schools deemed to be “failing” based on test scores. Schools scoring 60 or below on Georgia’s College and Career Readiness Index for three consecutive years would be eligible for takeover by the State’s OSD. Fuhrey pointed out that this standard is in itself problematic, “The State’s assessment instruments are neither valid nor reliable and have not been the same since 2012. This is why Newton County School System is trying to opt out of the State’s assessment model. They are not achievement based and people need to understand that a manipulation of the testing standards could change the status of schools as to whether or not they are considered failing.”
The OSD would be administered by a superintendent appointed and supervised by the Governor. Once taken over, the OSD would take control of all Federal, state, and local funding, all buildings, and all operations away from the locally elected school board for a minimum of five years. Ciccarelli, Fleming, as well as many different Newton County and Rockdale County school board members and administrators expressed unanimous concern about the State wresting decisions about children as well as the use of local resources away from locally elected board members and communities. As Ciccarelli put it, “Who understands the needs better than local people?”
Once the OSD takes over a school deemed to be failing, the OSD superintendent would have four options. He/ she could close the school; administer the school directly; transfer the school to the State Charter Schools Commission; or develop a contract with the local school board requiring specific changes. Current teachers, staff members, and administrators could be retained by the OSD or released to the local school board for reassignment or layoff.
There are currently 130 schools in Georgia which, by the definition given above, are deemed to be failing. Ac- cording to Ciccarelli, three of those schools are State-run charter schools, raising the irony of the State taking over failing State run schools. No Newton or Rockdale county schools are currently considered failing and therefore none would be subject to OSD takeover.
Katrina Young, Rockdale County Public Schools Board Member, pointed out that the current OSD eligible schools serve about 68,000 students, which is 4 percent of Georgia’s 1.7 million elementary and secondary school children. Ciccarelli reported that if the State took control of all OSD eligible schools the total funding diverted from local to state control would amount to about $13 million per year.
Ciccarelli and Fleming both discussed the track record of OSD-like approaches in other states as well as alternative approaches to address the needs of struggling schools. Tennessee and Louisiana have OSD-like mecha- nisms, but according to Ciccarelli and Fleming state takeovers there have had mixed results and in both cases families felt disconnected from their children’s schools.
They both said that although there is little evidence of success for the OSD approach, there is plenty of evidence for the success of alternative approaches. Ciccarelli cited the need to provide resources to struggling schools to ensure they could hire the best teachers, support smaller class sizes, give students more attention, and provide “wrap around” health and nutrition services. She said, “We need to take politics out of our schools and focus on what works.”
Local state representatives in attendance were unanimous in their opposition to Amendment 1 and OSD. That included Representative Pam Dickerson, District 113; Representative JaNice Van Ness, District 43; and Representative Doreen Carter, District 92.
Margarett Cicarelli and Donna Flemming speak at a town hall meeting about Opportunity School Districts Thursday.