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Plan Modeled on State-Run Districts in Tenn., La. Approved by Ga. Senate

Cross-posted from the District Dossier blog

By Denisa Superville

More than 60 low-performing schools in the Atlanta metro area could eventually be taken over by the state if a school takeover bill being pushed by Gov. Nathan Deal is approved by lawmakers in the Georgia House and okayed by voters through a referendum next year.

The resolution for a constitutional amendment and enabling bill to create a state Opportunity School District to oversee and manage some of the state's chronically failing schools passed the state Senate on Thursday.

The bill passed by a 38-17 margin, receiving the bare minimum number of votes necessary to move forward. If the House approves the measure, it then heads to voters for approval in 2016.

Because Gov. Deal proposed the Opportunity School District as a constitutional amendment, the proposal requires a two-thirds vote in both chambers.

The proposal is modeled on the Recovery School District in Louisiana and the Achievement School District in Tennessee. In those two states, the lowest-performing schools were removed from local district control and turned over by state officials to charter management organizations.

"The Opportunity School District will allow us to bring new focus by education experts, better governance and best practices to schools that have underachieved for too long," Gov. Deal said after the Senate approval on Thursday. "The children trapped in these schools can't wait. I believe all children can learn, but we have an obligation to provide access for high-quality education to those students and parents who are anxious for a better future. It's my vision—and that of many legislators here—that every high school graduate in Georgia should have the skills needed to enter the workforce or further their educations in college."

The constitutional amendment would allow the governor to appoint a superintendent who would choose up to 20 schools each year from those that score below 60 for three consecutive years on the state's College and Career Performance Index, the equivalent of a state report card.

The superintendent, who would answer directly to the governor, would have the authority to turn those schools over to charter operators, shut them down, or continue them under different management. The superintendent would also have the authority to dispense with some state rules.

Though it passed the resolution, the lawmakers in the state Senate inserted language that will give them a role in the process, by requiring a Senate confirmation of the superintendent. 

The Opportunity School District would not have more than 100 schools under its supervision at the same time. Before schools are selected to be part of the district, there would be a public hearing during which parents and the community would have some input. However, the final say on what schools are taken over would rest with the superintendent of the specially created district.

According to The Atlanta Journal Constitution, the majority of schools that currently fit the criteria to be taken over are in the Metro Atlanta area, and more than 140 such schools in the state could possibly be eligible.

The road ahead seems difficult. Democrats are generally against the proposal, arguing that the schools need more resources to allow them to succeed. Others fear the loss of local control over schools. 

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