Opportunity School District in Georgia, a Model For Failure

Athens for Everyone joins the Clarke County School Board, Superintendent Philip Lanoue, The Economic Justice Coalition, The Georgia Association of Educators, Concerned Black Clergy, the AFL-CIO, and other concerned organizations and community leaders in calling for voters to reject Nathan Deal’s so-called “Opportunity School District” amendment.

This amendment is based on a model that has failed, and the Louisiana government has, in effect, recognized this. This year they voted to end the controversial program in New Orleans.  Should this amendment pass in Georgia, it will harm the education of many of Georgia’s most vulnerable students by creating an entryway for private, potentially for-profit charter providers, many of which pride themselves on a “no excuses” model that disproportionately punishes and pushes out special needs and students of color.

This November, Georgians will have the chance to vote on the Georgia State Intervention in Failing Public Schools Amendment (Amendment 1). This amendment to Georgia’s constitution would create a statewide school district misguidedly named an “Opportunity School District,” similar to the Recovery School District attempted in New Orleans. In such models, schools can be punished for low standardized test scores with a takeover by officials reporting directly to the Governor of Georgia and not to the state education department.

In this so-called “Opportunity” school district, an appointed superintendent would D-have the ability to fire teachers and administration at-will. Out of town officials would have the ability to remake local schools, convert them into private charter schools, and even close them down. The Center for Public Integrity gives the Georgia State Government a D- in its rating of government corruption, and one must wonder whether the appointed superintendents will be qualified administrators or simply loyalists of the Governor’s office.

This program is based in large part on the Recovery School District initiative that happened in Louisiana in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Though the program received bipartisan support, it was a failure. The New Orleans charter schools perform worse than Louisiana public schools with similar socio-economic profiles (minority students, students in poverty, students in special education) according to a study conducted by University of Arizona researchers Francesca López and Amy Olson for the Network for Public Education. The New Orleans charters have brought more high-stakes testing, a rigid atmosphere that resembles policing more so than education, with many schools delivering out-of-school suspensions to more than 50% of their students per year.

The charter schools in New Orleans show far greater rates of teacher turnover than Louisiana public schools. In the study by López and Olson, 46 percent of Recovery School teachers had plans to leave, compared to just 6 percent in public schools elsewhere in the state. Most damning of all, New Orleans schools have been found to exclude undesirable students, those who might harm the all-important test score rankings, by under-enrolling special education and students considered to be “at-risk” of not contributing to an overall climb in student achievement. Further, disciplinary action is often targeted at low-performing students in order to juke the stats.

It is thus not surprising that the Louisiana government has chosen to end the Recovery School District program. The district is dissolving, and the schools of New Orleans are at last returning to local control. It is surprising that even in the wake of this, Georgia would choose to emulate this failed model. Naomi Klein sited the Katrina takeover in her book The Shock Doctrine as a prime example of disaster capitalism. As we head to the polls in November, we must be weary of a ballot initiative that appears to be less an “opportunity” for Georgia students and more for the privatization of public resources and the disempowerment of one of our most sacred democratic institutions.

The foundation of American public education is the locally elected school board. Communities run their own schools because, we believe, communities understand their own needs best. The solution to struggling schools is greater resources and contextualized programs that acknowledge and address the numerous ways that poverty impedes education. The solution is not a fresh crop of well-connected bureaucrats from the Georgia Capitol who will be quick to fire and quick to privatize local schools. Louisiana learned from its mistake, and Georgians should heed the message of this cautionary tale.

June 15, 2016



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