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Georgia Voters Defeat State-Run District for Struggling Schools

UPDATED

Georgia voters soundly defeated a measure sought by Gov. Nathan Deal to change the state constitution to create a special district to take over low-performing schools.

Unofficial election results from Georgia's secretary of state on Wednesday showed that, with all precincts reporting, the measure to create a so-called Opportunity School District was defeated, with 60 percent of voters rejecting it, and 40 percent voting in favor. 

The Opportunity School District was expected to be a signature piece of education policy for Deal

He had framed the district's creation in personal terms, arguing that it was the state's "moral" duty to rescue some 68,000 or so students who attend schools that were among the lowest-performing for three consecutive years, and to provide those students with better education options.

The measure's defeat was foreshadowed in a poll the Atlanta Journal-Constitution published on Oct. 21, which showed that 59 percent of the 1,000 likely registered voters it polled opposed the Opportunity School District. Thirty-four percent were in favor, and 8 percent were undecided. (The paper, for its part, has been assiduously covering every twist and turn in this debate for nearly a year.)

More than $7 million had been raised through early November by groups both for and against the measure, the AJC also reported this month.

An unlikely, but formidable, coalition of teachers' unions, school boards, district administrators, the state PTA , and some conservative Republicans strongly opposed the measure. But, illustrating how fraught the issue was, some school boards and district superintendents backed Gov. Deal. The governor's allies also included Democrats and Republicans, as well as national education reform groups such as 50CAN.

The Opportunity District was modeled in part on Louisiana's Recovery School District and Tennessee's Achievement School District.

However, two things had to fall into place before Georgia could follow Louisiana's and Tennessee's lead. The legislature had to pass a bill to create the new statewide district.  And Georgia had to amend its constitution to create the district, precipitating the need for the ballot question.  

The district would have been run by a superintendent who would have reported only to the governor. Up to 20 schools would have been selected annually. Schools would have been subjected to a number of interventions, including closure, charter conversion, or collaboration with the local district to improve them.

While the law required the superintendent to hold community meetings and get feedback from parents and the community on what was best for targeted schools, the final decision about what schools to include in the district and the interventions they would get would have been left to the sole discretion of the superintendent.

Proponents argued the takeover was a temporary—but necessary—measure to provide a better education for students who languish too long in failing schools. They also argued that it would give parents and communities a greater voice in how schools would be run.

Opponents, however, argued that the proposal was an attempt to wrest local control and tax dollars from districts. Some educators, including DeKalb County superintendent Stephen Green and Valarie Wilson of the Georgia School Boards Association, told Education Week last month that districts were already working to turn around chronically low-performing schools, and some had started new programs, including principal support, wraparound services, and teacher-training, in some of those schools. The ballot question's language was also criticized for being "vague" and prompted a lawsuit.

Will the rejection of Georgia's proposal deter other states from considering this kind of turnaround approach?

Probably not. Georgia&dmash;with the additional layer of the constitutional amendment—might just be a special case, Nelson Smith, a senior adviser to the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, told us last month as the debate heated up in the Peach State. 

"I do think the fact that [Georgia] requires a constitutional referendum may make it an outlier, and reduce the impact that it might have on other states, because states can go a long way toward doing this administratively or through simple statutes, without having to go through the kind of protracted debates that Georgia is going through," Smith said.

The Georgia effort had to cross two hurdles.

"It basically requires two political debates—one about the legislation itself, and then the second about the constitutional measure, the referendum," Nelson said at the time. "It's before the public for a long time. And, in a sense, that's very healthy—it lets everybody get their views on the table. But it does make it a more pointed political issue."

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