It’s official, Gov. Nathan Deal’s long night of educational discontent is over. Thursday he signed House Bill 338 into law, now known as The First Priority Act. This legislation allows the state to take over what it deems “failing” schools.
If you remember, the governor was soundly rebuffed when his heavily backed effort to do much the same thing through a constitutional amendment died at the ballot box last November. However, this effort is not as heavy-handed.
There is still controversy over what is a failing school and the instrument, the College and Career Ready Performance Index, that’s used to measure a school’s success or failure. That said, the legislation, provides — at first — more of a partnership between the school systems where the failing schools exist and the State Department of Education. The failed constitutional amendment would have bypassed the Department of Education altogether and would have formed an Opportunity School District with its own superintendent that reported to the governor. This legislation is somewhat similar in that it provides for a chief turnaround officer, but that person will be hired by and report to the State Board of Education. Under the chief turnaround officer will be turnaround coaches who will also have to be approved by the state board. The governor is not out of the loop. He appoints Board of Education members.
The legislation holds out a carrot with a heavy stick attached. All but two of the state’s 180 school districts have contracts with the state that gives them certain waivers from state mandates such as maximum class sizes. If the state identifies a school or schools in a school system and the district doesn’t agree to state help, those waivers that save the district money go bye-bye.
The state will first, with the help of a consultant, design a school improvement plan that will look at doing two things: Finding the root cause for the school’s low performance and how to correct it. Some of the measures to implement the plan will cost money, but the state won’t provide any of that, except in the cases of hardship.
Once the plan is implemented districts have three years to improve the school before the big state stick comes swinging in. School staff could be axed, a private nonprofit manager could be brought in or the state could direct the district to transport the failing school’s students to a better performing school. The state could make the school a charter or allow another district to take it over.
The legislation also does something the constitutional amendment didn’t do. It opens the door to the education establishment while the amendment went out of its way to shut them out. The legislation mandates an Education Turnaround Advisory Council that will report to the State Board of Education composed of the executive director of the Georgia School Boards Association; the executive director of the Georgia School Superintendents Association; the executive director of the Professional Association of Georgia Educators; the executive director of the Georgia Association of Educators; the president of the Georgia Parent Teacher Association; the executive director of Educators First.
The General Assembly, wanting always to keep its hands in the process, spell out in the legislation that two education leaders will be appointed by the lieutenant governor and two by the speaker of the house. However, the Education Turnaround Advisory Council has no authority of its own and can only advise the State Board of Education.
It may be some time before we see a turnaround coach in Middle Georgia. There are 153 schools on the Governor’s Office of Student Achievement failing list — 11 in Bibb County, one each in Peach and Twiggs. There is set criteria for choosing which schools will be addressed first. Obviously, it is beyond the capacity of the State Board of Education to address all of the schools. There are plenty of schools in the Atlanta area to keep the chief turnaround officer busy. Three of the lowest performing CCRPI schools are in the Atlanta Public School System.