Georgia school amendment renews debate over weak schools

ATLANTA (AP) — Georgians must decide this fall whether the state can take over low-performing schools, a proposal backed by Republican Gov. Nathan Deal but fiercely opposed by education groups.

For parents, teachers and others, the divide over Amendment 1 on November ballots is emotionally charged. Opponents warn that passage will leave parents with few routes to protest decisions made by an appointed official accountable to the governor.

Proponents argue that those urging a 'no' vote are more concerned about adults working in schools than children assigned to school districts based on their addresses.

The Nov. 8 vote is the latest attempt to institute a takeover model already used in Louisiana and Tennessee, with mixed results on student improvement. There also are parallels to Georgia voters' approval of a constitutional amendment in 2012 allowing charter schools authorized by a state board. Black voters helped that proposal easily pass, despite strong opposition from groups representing teachers.

The same organizations hope for a different outcome this year. This week, the anti-amendment effort hosted an event featuring civil rights veteran Andrew Young and Atlanta Braves Hall of Famer Hank Aaron. Both men made clear pleas for 'no' votes in black communities served by the majority of the low-performing schools.

And so far, opponents are outspending Deal's allies on television ads. More than $4.4 million in advertising aired through mid-October, according to a Center for Public Integrity analysis of data from Kantar Media/CMAG. The Committee to Keep Georgia Schools Local, largely funded by teachers' union the National Education Association, has spent nearly $2.8 million on advertising.

A pro-amendment group called Opportunity for All Georgia Students spent nearly $1.7 million. The group received nearly 70 percent of its funding from an independent group that isn't legally required to disclose its donors called Georgia Leads, led by former Deal aides.

Under Deal's plan, an appointed superintendent accountable to the governor could add up to 20 schools to an "opportunity school district" each year and convert them into charter schools, overhaul management or close them. The district could not include more than 100 schools total, and the appointed superintendent could withhold up to 3 percent of a school's funding, which is determined by a complex formula, for administration expenses.

Valencia Stovall, a state representative, joined 10 other House Democrats who backed a statewide vote on the proposed amendment. As she campaigns for it now, Stovall often cites frustration with the Clayton County school district as her daughter, now 19, moved toward graduation.

"Some school districts are doing a great job tackling issues of low performing schools, but others have not been as aggressive as they should be," Stovall said. "So the question I ask to the school boards and my community: What can we do right now?"

Schools could be taken over by the state after three years of scores below 60 on the state's index for measuring performance and growth. Deal's office says 127 schools meet that criterion as of May. Nearly all serve large numbers of minority students or students who qualify for free meals.

"The bottom line is: This is going to affect poor black kids. Those are children from my community, where I grew up," said Kimberly Brooks, a mother of two teenage girls who attend public schools in Atlanta. Brooks, who is black, joined a still-pending lawsuit this fall challenging the wording of the ballot question. She fears that parents will lose influence if the amendment passes, putting a state appointee in charge rather than an elected school board.

Deal, a Republican in his final term, has recently stepped up his campaign efforts, including a television ad. He pitches the amendment as an extension of efforts to overhaul Georgia's prison and court systems. Children who drop out of school are more likely to later commit crimes and serve time in the state prison system, Deal often tells business groups.

"Education reform is the greatest criminal justice reform," Deal told reporters this fall.

Opponents of the measure have cheered recent polling showing they are making headway. But those results also include a high number of undecided voters on the question, described on the ballot as a way to "fix failing schools through increasing community involvement".

Sherry Mallory's 16-year-old son attends a Clayton County high school that was considered low performing until this year. Mallory said she's leaning toward voting yes, but she still has questions after attending a few events on the issue. For instance, would her local PTA maintain the same level of input? Would students get tutoring or other specialized attention that the district can't give?

"It sounds good," Mallory said. "But if I don't get those answers, I worry that I'm voting for something that's putting me and my child in jeopardy."

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