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Your Opportunity to Vote on the Opportunity School District

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By Gaby Lohner

In this election season, it may be easy to forget about important local initiatives on the ballot in the midst of the Trump-Clinton showdown. In Georgia, along with Senate and local elections, there are four referendums up for ratification. The first, Amendment 1, pertains to Georgia’s schooling laws, and has sparked an impassioned response from Georgians.

This amendment, sponsored by Gov. Nathan Deal, would allow for “the state to intervene in chronically failing public schools in order to improve student performance.” If passed, the state would set up a new entity, separate of the school board, called the Opportunity School District (OSD), to take over failing schools. A school is labeled as “failing” if they receive lower than a 60 on the state’s test for three consecutive years.

There are essentially four possibilities for schools once the unelected OSD board takes control. The first option allows the school to remain a part of the local district, but it will receive specific instruction to target the weaker areas of the school’s performance. In the second option, the OSD school board will “directly support the school principal.” This wording is vague, but one can assume this means appointing a new administration. The third option is to become a charter school that would be “overseen by… parents and other leaders in that specific community.” A charter school is a school that is managed outside of the local school authorities, run by a charter company that is under contract with the school. Charter schools can differ from state-run schools in “curriculum, personnel, and budget” and they generally “have few if any zoning limitations,” meaning children located anywhere in the state can attend. Many existing charter schools in Georgia are receiving “D’s” on their state report cards, making this an even more controversial move. The fourth, and most extreme option, involves the students’ reassignment “to a higher achieving school.”

This bill has certainly stirred up controversy and generated stark differences in opinion. $3.3 million dollars had been raised as of September 30 in relation to campaigns for and against this amendment. The pushback from local schoolboards, educators and community members has been strong and well-funded. TV ads, social media posts, and even efforts as elaborate as a sign flying above the University of Georgia versus Vanderbilt football game have been common.

Who’s for it?

Gov. Deal is the leading supporter of this amendment. The AJC is calling this a “very personal political war” for Deal, and sees the passage of this bill as a defining win for his education agenda. As of September 30, four donors raised $1.22 million for Gov.Deal’s amendment fund. Those four are AT&T, The Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce, 50CAN, and Georgia Leads, Inc. All have considerable payoffs involved in supporting this amendment, whether through unrelated legislation or direct benefit from the establishment of the OSD. The contributions from these parties have, justifiably, raised eyebrows. It seems that these companies, who all have significant potential gains from either the ratification of the amendment or from Deal’s recognition of their support, should not be the biggest contributors to the fund. Brinkley Serkedakis, the director of Common Cause Georgia, a non-partisan organization dedicated to promoting public participation in democracy, remarked that “this kind of behind-the-scenes politicking has serious consequences.”

Supporters of the bill claim that it will give opportunities to kids who are stuck in a failing school district. Governor Deal often points to the fact that there are “68,000 students who are required by law to attend a chronically-failing school” in Georgia. He believes that “somebody needs to help them,” and the best way to do that is through the OSD.

Who’s against it?

The people against the bill are numerous and outspoken. Teachers, PTA members, over 40 school boards, and the president of the Georgia Association of Educators, who is currently traveling the state to speak against the OSD, have all taken a stand against Amendment 1. Opponents of the OSD denounce not only the substance behind the proposition, claiming that it would take power from local school boards and educators, but also take issue with the wording on the ballot. A lawsuit has been filed on behalf of Georgia voters against what challengers believe to be “misleading, subjectively worded” language. Sid Chapman, the president of the Georgia Association of Educators, remarked that, after reading it, “who would be against it?” The wording of the amendment is ambiguous and confusing, asking whether the state should be able to “intervene” in failing schools — something that seems like a natural “yes” to someone who does not understand the actuality of the proposal.

Does it work?

Louisiana and Tennessee are two states that have implemented programs similar to that which would be adopted if Amendment 1 passes. In Louisiana, the program is accepted to have been successful in that the percent of underperforming schools has decreased by 50 percent. Despite this increase, members of the Louisiana education community say not to be convinced, claiming that excellence has yet to be reached. GPR writer Nathan Williams wrote an article in January arguing why Georgia needs a program similar to Louisiana’s. There is one major difference between Louisiana’s program and Georgia’s, and that is school choice. In Louisiana, parents have the opportunity to choose which school to send their child to. Generally, this means that higher ability students whose parents have taken an active stance in their schooling will be sent to higher-performing schools. This brings up the idea of fairness, because lower income families do not always have the opportunity to send their children to schools out of district, potentially exacerbating the achievement gap between high- and low-performing schools.

Because of the lack of this type of school choice, experts say that the Georgia program would mirror the policy implemented in Tennessee rather than Louisiana. Tennessee’s program, called the Tennessee Achievement District, was put in place three years ago and has not yet been as successful as Louisiana’s. Vanderbilt professor Gary Henry told the AJC that after three years of implementation in Tennessee, the failing schools that were placed on charter showed no significant improvement. While it may be too early to make a definitive decision about the effectiveness of the program, it is important to consider these results when voting.

The aim of the amendment

The argument against the amendment is fairly easy to understand. The OSD would take control away from the local authorities who know the schools and students best, the process is underdeveloped and needs specifications, and the OSD superintendent would not have to answer to anyone but the governor. An argument in support of the policy may be harder to find, based on the paucity of data backing this type of program and the general lack of information concerning how exactly the OSD would work.

As of now, the overarching idea in support of the policy is rooted in incentives. The idea that a school could be taken over, resulting in potential loss of jobs for a principal or teachers based on the rating of their school, could drive educators to employ additional resources in ensuring that they are on the passing side of the yearly test. This kind of pressure may remind Atlantans of the Atlanta Public School cheating scandal of 2011. This additional performance stress may not always result in positive outcomes or harder work, and in the cheating case resulted in teachers changing their students’ test answers in order to improve classroom results. In response to the current amendment, Fulton Country superintendent Jeff Rose has already reacted to this so-called incentive structure by placing additional time and attention into these failing schools; he has suggested that “it is pushing us to support these [failing] schools.”

This explanation may sound simple, but it erroneously attributes student success to the efforts of teachers and administrators alone. Schools are constrained by more than just the effort employees put in — there are issues with funding, resources, parent support, student ability, and many other factors that impact whether a school is high-performing or not. It has been proven that family income has a correlative relationship with student ability; Dahl and Lochner (2012) demonstrated that a $1,000 income gain in a household raises a child’s math and reading test scores by 6 percent of one standard deviation, and that this impact is even larger for low-income families. This study shows that the most impactful way to improve a student’s success in school is to increase his or her family’s income, not necessarily to change the operation of the school itself. Amendment 1 would do nothing to impact this important part of a student’s success.

The success of this amendment is now in the hands of the people. Whether you feel strongly one way or another, it is important to get out and vote on November 8 for more than just the presidential election. These state policies, along with three other referendums and local elections, will potentially have a more direct impact on your life than whomever is elected President.

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