GAE president calls proposed Amendment 1 ‘misleading’

(Wednesday,08/31/2016 © Statesboro Herald)
Leaving no doubt where the Georgia Association of Educators stands on the statewide Opportunity School District, GAE President Dr. Sid Chapman called Amendment I on the Nov. 8 ballot “a very misleading amendment” and warned that “the devil is in the details.” If voters agree to amend the state Constitution, legislation passed by the Georgia General Assembly last year will create the special district for schools that repeatedly receive failing grades on the state’s College and Career Ready Performance Index, or CCRPI. Campaigning for defeat of the amendment, Chapman spoke Friday at the Democratic Party of Bulloch County Gala, attended by more than 150 people in Georgia Southern University’s Russell Union Ballroom. But first, he visited the Statesboro Herald for an interview. The Amendment 1 ballot questions looks like this: “Shall the Constitution of Georgia be amended to allow the state to intervene in chronically failing public schools in order to improve student performance? ( ) Yes; ( ) No.” This will follow a preamble stating that the amendment “provides greater flexibility and state accountability to fix failing schools through increasing community involvement.” “Now, who would vote against that? … ,” Chapman said. “It sounds good, but the devil is in the details.” Will answer to governor Senate Bill 133, which Gov. Nathan Deal proposed, passed the House 108-53 and the Senate 33-16 in March 2015. It would establish the Opportunity School District, under the authority of a superintendent appointed by the governor, within the Office of Student Achievement. “All local-controlled boards of education will not have any control over what happens to that school, but the local board of education will be required to keep that school building up and send 3 percent of the budget back to the state,” Chapman said. The legislation actually states that local boards would still be responsible for any extensive repairs to their buildings, but that the OSD would be responsible for routine repairs. The 3 percent would be money withheld from the schools’ funding to pay for the state oversight. Currently, schools would qualify if they score below 60 percent on the CCRPI for three consecutive years. The CCRPI relies heavily on test scores but also gives schools credit for things such as graduation rates and attendance. Under Senate Bill 133, the Opportunity School District superintendent could apply various “intervention models” to the failing schools. One possibility would be direct supervision by the OSD. Another is shared control by the OSD and the local board of education under a contract specifying changes to be made. The law also provides that a school not operating at full capacity could be closed and its students assigned to a successful school in the same system. Charter schools But failing schools could also be assigned to charter school organizations. This is the option most extensively referred to in the pending law, and the only one Chapman mentioned. He noted that the charters could be assigned to nonprofit or for-profit groups. “Well, that charter school can some in and just fire everybody in the building, every teacher, and then they will manage it,” he said. “They could bring in Teach for America, noncertified people, whatever.” Teach for America is a nonprofit organization that recruits university graduates to serve as teachers in low-income communities. Models for the Georgia’s Opportunity School District include Louisiana’s Recovery School District, enacted in 2003 under former Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, and Tennessee’s Achievement School District, created in 2011. But Chapman said these and similar intervention efforts in other states haven’t worked. “What has happened in New Orleans?” he said. “All of those charters came in, Bobby Jindal has gone away, the charters have gone away, they have recently been turned back over to the New Orleans school district. They failed, they got their money and they got out of there.” The GAE, Chapman said, does not object to public charter schools. But it objects that assigning the underperforming schools to charters empowered to fire teachers blames the teachers without addressing the real challenges the schools are facing. Currently, 127 schools would qualify. Most, he noted, are in areas with large minority populations. “The kids are impoverished most of the time, there are health issues, no health care, there are family issues, people that are put out of their homes,” Chapman said. “Literacy is a big thing because you’ve got to have family literacy as well.” So the GAE proposes a “community schools” alternative that would get the help of community organizations to provide “wrap-around support” services for children and their families. The GAE is made up mainly of teachers and other school employees and retirees. It has upwards of 30,000 members, according to Chapman. Now starting his third year as president, he is a high school social studies teacher on leave from the Clayton County system. The Professional Association of Georgia Educators, or PAGE; the Georgia PTA; and the Georgia Federation of Teachers also oppose Amendment 1. The PTA last week publicly characterized the ballot question preamble as “intentionally misleading” and called for it to be rewritten. StudentsFirst support But StudentsFirst has supported the Opportunity School District proposal all along. It’s a way to make changes and try special interventions in schools that have been underperforming for years, StudentsFirst Georgia Executive Director Michael O'Sullivan said in a phone interview. “Three years is the minimum, but in many cases it’s far longer than that – and so you look at those schools and see what’s being done to address it,” he said. “In many cases there hasn’t been any noticeable increase in student gains, graduation rates are still poor, proficiency rates are still atrocious, and so there’s a desire to say enough is enough and something needs to change.” The OSD superintendent will work with each community to determine the best intervention model for a school, O’Sullivan said. The pending law does not actually set a 60 percent CCRPI score as the threshold for failing schools. Instead, the bill requires the Office of School Achievement to assign schools grades of “A” through “F” each year based on the accountability system, currently the CCRPI, approved by the state Board of Education. Based on this lack of a fixed standard, Chapman suggested the amendment could enable a state takeover of all public schools. But O’Sullivan called this “a scare tactic more than anything else,” and said the mechanics of the process show that taking over large numbers of schools is not the motivation. As he points out, the legislation limits the Opportunity School District to adding 20 schools each year, and having a maximum of 100 schools at any time. Schools that obtain passing scores for three consecutive years would return to local control. In their discussions, legislators said the goal would be to improve schools to the point that none would be eligible, O’Sullivan said. “If we are successful as a state, as an entire educational system, there will be no chronically failing schools,” he said. “I would hope and I would cheer on any school district who is able to turn a school around on their own.” StudentsFirst describes itself as a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization interested in school reform. It reports having about 70,000 Georgia members, many of them parents. It requires no dues and members just sign up, O’Sullivan said. Herald reporter Al Hackle may be reached at (912) 489-9458.