Five lessons from other states that shaped Opportunity School District

Fifth graders Vandasia Louis, 11, and Jerrinya Smith, 11, play chess at Baton Rouge’s Celerity Lanier Charter School. Jaime Sarrio jsarrio@ajc.com

State Rep. Christian Coomer, R-Cartersville, shares the lessons he learned from state takeover programs in other states and how those lessons have shaped the Opportunity School District.

By Rep. Christian Coomer

There are now 68,000 Georgia students who attend the 127 schools that have received a failing grade for three consecutive years. Many of these schools have been struggling for decades.

As a legislator, I agree with Gov. Nathan Deal we cannot continue to sit idly by and watch schools fail their students year after year. A great education gives young people the opportunity for a prosperous and fulfilling life. We want this and need this not only for all of Georgia’s children but also for the future of our state.

In developing a plan to address our state’s lowest performing schools, we looked at reforms adopted in other states to learn what worked and what didn’t work. Building on their experience, we designed a unique system that works specifically for Georgia.

I joined Gov. Deal and a bipartisan group of legislators on a fact-finding mission to Louisiana to study its Recovery School District. Others traveled to Tennessee to review the Achievement School District program. These are some of the key points we took away from our investigations.

1. Focus only on the lowest performing schools:

Some states have the authority to assume control of an entire school district.  We never considered that to be a proposal worth considering.  Instead, the model provided by Louisiana and Tennessee showed much more promise for our state.  In this model, the state creates a single school district for the task of temporarily intervening in and turning around the state’s lowest performing schools.  This allows the district to have a lean operation, specializing in the sole task of turning around schools.

2. Empower parents, community members and educators:

Far too often a sense of urgency around improving schools has resulted in parents and community members being left out of the process.  The OSD law requires that input will be sought from these key stakeholders at every step of the process. If schools are converted to charters schools, they will be governed by a nonprofit governing board made up of community members, pushing control of those schools to the most local level possible. The majority of any school council created under the OSD must be composed of family members of children in that school.

Likewise, we heard from numerous educators who taught both before and after their school switched districts. These educators spoke of the need to be in a supportive environment where teachers are encouraged to lead and innovate. We’ve designed the law with the goal of retaining and attracting the best teachers to these schools with the highest need, and, in a model where the school principal is truly running the school, empower each of them to work together to drive improvements.

3. Provide traditional districts the tools to innovate:

In Tennessee, the Achievement School District has shown good progress but the work of the schools in the Shelby County School District Innovation Zone has outpaced most of the rest of the state. We spoke to numerous local leaders who credit both the ASD for being a catalyst for change and Shelby County for stepping up to improve their underperforming schools. They are giving credit to the “collaboration and competition” between the two entities for these gains. Through the Charter System and Strategic Waiver School System laws, local districts in Georgia already have the flexibility given to districts in Tennessee through their ASD reform model and school boards with OSD-eligible schools have already shown a willingness to take far bolder action than ever before to turn around the chronically failing schools in their districts with just the threat of the state having the ability to step in. Our hope is that the reforms they’ve put in place will be successful and the state won’t need to intervene in those schools.

4. Have a clear exit strategy out of the OSD:

Louisiana spent the past few years wrestling with the issue of how to effectively exit schools from the Recovery School District and return them to local control. Earlier this spring, after 11 years, the Louisiana Legislature worked with leaders of the RSD, local school district officials and school leaders to chart a clear path for returning the schools to the oversight of the local school board. Georgia’s law specifies that the OSD should begin looking to return a school after five years, cannot oversee a school for more than 10 years, and, if a school goes three consecutive years receiving a non-failing grade, it will automatically exit the OSD.

To us, this was one of the most important takeaways from those who have gone before us. How you define success determines the structure of the office and the motivation behind it. Tennessee has a goal which they say is admittedly a reach but it’s what they aim for — to consistently move schools from the bottom 5 percent to the top 25 percent. For us in Georgia, the goal is clear. We aim to ensure there are no children forced to attend a chronically failing school. Success is the achievement of that goal.

The Opportunity School District encourages school districts to act, and as Gov. Deal and my colleagues in the Legislature have routinely stated, we are rooting for every district to succeed in turning around their perpetually underperforming schools. If a school district can achieve that goal, that is the best-case scenario, but if it continues to fail its students, that’s where the Opportunity School District will step in to get it back on track.

5. Finally, define success.

Success is not “how many schools can be in the OSD.” Success is when there are no schools eligible for the OSD because there are no chronically failing schools in the state, a goal that every Georgian should be aiming for.

This is not a silver bullet that will solve every problem in every school, but it will help resolve some of the chronic failures in some of the most severely underperforming schools in Georgia. The families living in the attendance zones of failing schools have asked the state to help — they came in droves to our committee meetings asking the General Assembly to place this amendment on the ballot.

I believe the people of Georgia have the foresight and the resolve to make this solution available for those children who have been stuck in failing schools.

 

Reader Comments 0

73 comments
itsbrokeletsfixit
itsbrokeletsfixit

All sounds good EXCEPT there is no mention of how to measure success for the OSD. The unwritten answer is that you will use standardized test scores (STS). And that, along with chronically underfunding schools for decades, is how we got into this awful fix. The lure of STS is to provide a simple way to compare schools. The problem is that this one dimensional measure doesn't actually work. Ask yourself what a HS graduate should know and BE ABLE TO DO upon gradation. If the answer is to be able to read and take a test maybe STS is a fairly accurate assessment. But if graduates should be able to achieve their own self potential, have self confidence, and become good citizens, STS are not valid. Rating schools with STS results in teaching to the test, ignoring the students curiosity and individual interests, cheating to pass the test, and eliminating a teacher's ability to address the needs and interests of individuals in her/his classroom. Truth is that students have become bored with the process and lost interest in the process of trying to absorb all the information being thrust at them, so they tragically tune out.

Until we get rid of Standard tests, reduce class sizes, adequately fund education, and let teachers teach, the problem will remain or get worse. The OSD will not fix anything!

Starik
Starik

All this chatter about the teachers; the initiative is about the kids.

JBBrown1968
JBBrown1968

@Starik Not chatter....just truth...no majority white school will be taken over.  So basically it will look like poor black people can't take care of their children's education. 

Starik
Starik

@JBBrown1968 @Starik Can they? Can they pass on values that they do not possess? Do these kids need to absorb mainstream American skills and values? How will they do that when their teachers have poor educations?  How do you teach English when your speech, wiring and grammar are awful?

JBBrown1968
JBBrown1968

@Starik @JBBrown1968 So you are saying black people are not mainstream Americans and have no values? That only poorly educated people teach at these schools? That your plan for OSD schools is to make them more white.



Starik
Starik

@JBBrown1968 @Starik Not at all. I'm an old civil rights guy; I'd like to see a society where skin color is ignored by everybody, like hair color among white folks. Every day I encounter black folks and their color is irrelevant. 

The underclass, black or white, are not mainstream, by definition.  I focus on the black underclass because that's the group I'm familiar with.  Many in that group have values, of course, but not productive values.  Their values often lead to prison.  I don't say "only" poor teachers teach in poor schools. I think it's true that some of the worst teachers wind up there. Barring gentrification these schools will remain black, because the process of desegregation was handled poorly in the past and has resulted in renewed segregation. 


I've experienced teachers who shouldn't be teaching, especially English classes. Decent jobs require an ability to read and write adequately and an ability to speak standard English.  I know the black underclass quite well. Some of the kids are intelligent, and have positive values, and could succeed if they could escape bad neighborhoods, bad families and a warped culture. For these kids, school is the only way out of the ghetto.

JBBrown1968
JBBrown1968

So if you take over 20 schools with a new superintendent. What do you do about contractual obligations to the old super that have legal contracts with these school systems?  

Starik
Starik

@JBBrown1968 They can't change superintendents, the Principals will, like the teachers, be retained, if they're qualified, by the public school system.  Some might go to work for the State.

JBBrown1968
JBBrown1968

@Starik @JBBrown1968 So they will duplicate services and pay for two over priced people? That sounds like the state. So what does the new guy get paid for?

newsphile
newsphile

@Starik @JBBrown1968 The plan is to turn "failing" schools over to for-profit charter management companies.  All current school personnel will be jobless unless the management company keeps them on board.  That is unlikely to happen since for-profit charter schools aren't required to hire certified teachers.  However, the real issue here is the lack of improvement in education the students will receive.  NOLA, TN, and other places in which this plan has been tried have proven it does not work.  OSD will turn these students' lives upside down with no improvement in their educations and it will be more costly.  Read all the FACTS that are available from NOLA and TN.  

Starik
Starik

@JBBrown1968 @Starik No, if the current employees are any good they can find other jobs in their local public school system.

Starik
Starik

@newsphile @Starik @JBBrown1968 Can you show me information that is reliable, as unbiased as anything human can be, that says the worst performing kids and schools are doing well?

JBBrown1968
JBBrown1968

@Starik @newsphile @JBBrown1968 They are not doing well. Its because the money that is allocated to the school system does not get use for teaching. Because the state will allow them to build weight rooms and football fields......not buy books, curriculum, or technology. Its a mess. 85 % of the money should be spent in the classroom. 

Starik
Starik

@JBBrown1968 @Starik @newsphile I agree completely with that...look at DeKalb County, where support personnel are 60 percent of the employees.  We need to quit focusing on jobs for adult, and give the kids what they need.

AvgGeorgian
AvgGeorgian

@Starik @JBBrown1968 @newsphile

The legislature repeatedly refuses to legislate that 85% of school funding go to the classroom. The reason they refuse to do this is that it takes away the profit skim for charter companies. Charter profiteers and  public school privateers fund the republicans - so that is who calls the shots.

JBBrown1968
JBBrown1968

"Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever"  You people must of forgotten another revered Governor that wanted to take over public schools! 

Earnestly
Earnestly

One question that I have not heard answered is; if the Opportunity School District closes a school, what happens to that real estate? Does it go back to the school district or is it still under control of the OSD to be used, leased or sold? 

dg417s
dg417s

The building cannot be used as a school for 3 years. I don't know about you, but I don't want a boarded up school sitting in my neighborhood.

newsphile
newsphile

@Earnestly Our state taxes are paying for school facilities for some of the current for-profit charter managed schools.  That cost is in addition to the cost per pupil the schools receive.  Cherokee Charter greatly exaggerated the number of students and received quite a bonus that doesn't have to be returned to state coffers.  It's a real money maker for corporate headquarters in FL.  I'm guessing that's why they donated so much money to Deal's re-election campaign. 

EdJohnson
EdJohnson

@Gene G Johnson @dg417s

SB 133, Section 20-14-108, lines 260 through 270.

(a) Facilities of qualifying schools that are transferred to the supervision of the OSD as opportunity schools shall come under the control of the OSD. The OSD Superintendent may assign the facility for use by an OSD charter school governing board to operate the opportunity school. The OSD or the OSD charter school governing board shall be responsible for paying the pro-rata bond indebtedness of the school. The contents of the facility, including but not limited to textbooks, technology, media resources, instructional equipment, and all other resources shall remain with the facility and be available for use by the opportunity school. In the event that the OSD Superintendent closes a qualifying school, the local board of education shall not use the facility to open a school with the same grade span or attendance zone that is substantially the same for three years.

L_D
L_D

@newsphile @EdJohnson @Gene G Johnson @dg417s My assumption is that first, it would remain with the OSD, and the OSD superintendent can determine how to proceed (new charter operator, OSD managed, or shared governance).


What hasn't been pointed out is another GA law which allows charters to move into facilities not being used by local BoEs.  So, in this case, if the OSD super "closes" a school, the local BoE cannot place another school with the same grade span in, but the State Charter Schools Commission could.  IIRC, said charter would not have to pay rent to the local board to use the facility.

Earnestly
Earnestly

Let's say its not a money or power grab. How does the Opportunity School District empower parents and teachers to reform failing schools? The appointed superintendent has complete authority over which schools will be taken over, how they will be run, appointment of charter board members, veto power over any decision charter board members make, allocation of all funds and when and if schools return to their districts. While the superintendent must hold a public hearing, there is no requirement that the wishes of the public be considered or respected. It sounds like the only empowerment is going to the Governor and his designee. Now if it doesn't actually empower parents and teachers why lie?

The state is already running about 25 charter schools,  that are mostly performing far below the level of neighborhood schools. Why doesn't the Governor fix those schools first? It wouldn't take a constitutional amendment. Since the Governor has not made any effort to fix schools that he already controls, what is this amendment really about?

GA_and_Education_futile
GA_and_Education_futile

@Earnestly 

"The state is already running about 25 charter schools,  that are mostly performing far below the level of neighborhood schools. Why doesn't the Governor fix those schools first? It wouldn't take a constitutional amendment. Since the Governor has not made any effort to fix schools that he already controls, what is this amendment really about?"

EXACTLY!

Gene G Johnson
Gene G Johnson

VOTE YES !
For the simple reason that the state cannot do any worse than the districts are already doing.
The schools are failing miserably and have been failing for decades.   
Let's give the state a chance to improve these schools. If they cannot improve them, the schools and the children aren't any worse...but if the state improves them, everyone wins.
I am not going to vote to allow the same people to have "local control" and fail these kids.
I don't care about "control." I care about the kids.

Earnestly
Earnestly

@Gene G Johnson The state is already running about 25 charter schools, most of which are performing well below the level of neighborhood schools. The state could do worse, they already are!

Gene G Johnson
Gene G Johnson

@newsphile @Gene G Johnson  Really? In Atlanta Public Schools, per superintendent Carstarphen herself, 40% of all children are in the euphemistically titled "beginning learner" cagtegory, which means, miserably failing. APS has 55,000 kids. You do the math...and at the bottom of that pile are schools where kids cannot even read. Now you look them in the face and you look those parents in the face and tell them those kids don't deserve a chance to read and write and learn.

AvgGeorgian
AvgGeorgian

@Gene G Johnson @Earnestly

The state run, governor appointed, State Charter School District is doing exactly what the OSD will do - turn schools over to campaign donors/charter profiteers, give friends and family jobs, and hide all spending and hiring from the public.


And yes, the state run charter school district is chronically failing - their high school has a grad. rate of 7.7% and the million$ they spend are hidden from the taxpayer.

newsphile
newsphile

@Gene G Johnson @newsphile I can look those parents in the face and tell them they are being lied to about what OSD will do for their kids.  I believe every child deserves a good school, but OSD isn't going to provide good schools.  Look at the facts.

Starik
Starik

@AvgGeorgian @Gene G Johnson @newsphile Do you support retaining teachers that are as deprived educationally as their students? 



Do you value jobs for marginal (or worse) teachers over the chance for some of these kids to escape poverty?

dg417s
dg417s

Tennessee also told Georgia that when they started and took over 8, that was too many. So, what does Georgia go and do? Set it at 20 a year up to 100. 

This is bad policy and should be voted down.

Richard Cionci
Richard Cionci

Wait...black girls playing chess...good for them.

L_D
L_D

1. Focus on only the lowest performing schools:  Both the amendment (SR287) and the law (SB133) do not specifically define failing, but rather leave it very ambiguous.  SB133 specifically allows the governor's office to assign letter grades based upon any metric.  In Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina, the definition of failing was changed to "below state average."  There is absolutely no assurance this will focus only on the lowest performing schools.


2.  Empower parents, community members, and educators:  This is in no way empowering for any of these groups - except for the community members selected by the appointed superintendent to serve on the school's charter board (there is no direction for a local school council or board if the school is not a charter).  There is no election process for the school council, there is no requirement for parents or educators to be on the board, there is no definition of "community"  (is it the attendance zone, disrtrict, region, or could it be just a state resident?), and educators are automatically released from their positions in the school and can reapply (potentially for significantly lower salary and benefits). As to the make-up of the charter board, from SB133 (lns 209-217): (2) The members of the governing board for an OSD charter school shall come from the community and shall meet the following qualifications: (A) Must be a United States citizen; (B) Must be a resident of Georgia; and (C) Must not be an employee of the opportunity school. (3) The OSD Superintendent, after soliciting and considering recommendations from the local legislative delegation, shall make the final selection of governing board members for OSD charter schools 

3. Provide traditional districts the tools to innovate:  By your own admission, Strategic Waivers and Charter Systems already do this.   So, if the tools were already in place, how is this providing more?


4.  Have a clear exit strategy:  The exit is as ambiguous as the entry.  Schools have to be assigned something other than an "F" by the governor's office for 3 years.  This can be a moving target.  Also, charter operators do not exit the OSD.  Tennessee has a clear exit strategy, including requiring charter operators to get approval by the LOCAL BOARD after 5 or 10 years.


5.  Finally, define success:  Based upon the flexible language in both the amendment and the bill, chances are that if passed, there will not be a time in the foreseeable future when there are not schools on the list.


As far as "what else can be done" - there are many strategies that can be used and have SUCCESSFULLY been used in states far surpassing GA in academic achievement.  Also, the Department of Education from 2012-15 was successful in moving 155 schools off the Priority and Focus lists (low-performing schools).  This is a success rate of approximately 52 schools per year - without resorting to taxation without representation and diminishing the power of our voice and vote!

jefgee
jefgee

There a lot of claims in this article about what the law will and won't do, but who knows what's true? The organizers and supporters of this amendment have done all they could to prevent practical and accurate information about the actual content of the law from being readily accessible. The language on the ballot is deliberately misleading, and there's little reason to assume that this article is any less deceptive. 

newsphile
newsphile

Mr. Coomer, what have you done to fully restore funding that has been stripped from public school districts?  What have you done to push for revoking the charters of for-profit schools in GA that produce students with lower test scores than their local public school districts?  What have you done to reduce regulations that tie the hands of public school districts?  These steps should be taken before forming a second education department/agency in GA. 

Should OSD pass, there is no going back. It opens up another agency to be staffed and funded by taxpayers and used as political favors for the party of power.  GA's party of power happens to be your party today, but history has shown that no one party remains in control forever.  Will you be as happy to push OSD when another party has the power?   Politics, of any party, in schools is never a good thing for students.