DAWSONVILLE -- A state legislator who represents Forsyth County introduced a bill last week to the Georgia General Assembly that he said is his answer to last session’s failed Amendment No. 1, known as the Opportunity School District.
District 9 State Rep. Kevin Tanner spoke about the new bill at his breakfast on Feb. 11 at the Georgia Racing Hall of Fame, a meeting he holds every other Saturday throughout the session, which is halfway over.
He wanted to make one thing clear from the start: this bill is not the Opportunity School District, version 2.0.
“It’s not OSD. It has nothing to do with OSD,” Tanner said. “Before OSD came out, most of us recognized that something needed to be done about failing schools. The good thing about OSD is that it pushed the issue to the forefront of conversation, but this has nothing to do with it.”
“Resources to help them”
House Bill 338, as Tanner described it, attempts to incentivize local school systems to cooperate with the state to help their schools improve and hold them accountable.
To start, the bill would create an Education Turnaround Advisory Council, which would be in charge of hiring chief turnaround officers — salaried employees of the state who would be in charge of going into failing schools and helping them set up plans for improvement.
“A CTO would have to have a long history of experience in education, specifically a certain number of years of being a public school principal or higher,” Tanner said. “I thought it was important that this person had run a public school.”
CTOs would assign turnaround coaches who, along, with the CTO and local RESA, would analyze the school to find out why they are not succeeding.
A report would be given to the school system, which would be the basis for a specific student improvement plan.
Tanner said schools are typically unsuccessful for two main reasons, though individual reasons vary.
“No. 1 is external factors, and two is leadership,” he said. “The leadership component we’re attempting to address by bringing in this high-level expert who has experience in running public schools and turning around public schools, and also by bringing in this coach who will be there on a regular basis and will work hand in hand with the local leadership.
“External factors are much more difficult to fix. Most failing schools are in areas of high minority populations, high poverty, high free and reduced lunches, a lot of non-English speaking students, and if you look at the list of failing school, that’s typically what you’ll see.”
Once the plan is created and the school agrees, administrators and teachers would have two years to implement changes. If they are not participating after that time, the CTO would be able to enforce the plan.
“My hope is that the overwhelming majority of the systems will see that for the first time they have someone from the state with a specific level of expertise that is bringing some resources to help them and they will want to get on board,” Tanner said. “If not, there’s accountability.”
He said he included language that would create a joint study committee to look into establishing a state accreditation process as a complement to SACS accreditation.
He said he does not know yet what that would look like.
“You can ask me questions on that, say how that would look, how would that look, and I don’t know,” he said. “That’s why we’re not trying to write it in legislation today, that it’s a good idea and here’s what we’re going to do — we’re saying that needs to be explored.”
Also in the legislation is language that states if a school district has over half or more of their schools on the list of failing schools for five years or more, the school board can be removed.
There are 153 failing schools on the list – none in Forsyth, Hall or Dawson county schools districts, one in Gainesville City Schools — but no districts have reached that point.
“A hollow compromise”
Tanner said Governor Nathan Deal has been supportive of the bill so far.
Anita Tucker, a Forsyth County Democratic Party member who challenged District 5 Board of Education member Nancy Roche on the ballot in November, ran on platform largely focused on opposition to OSD.
Roche and the rest of the school board also opposed the amendment, passing a resolution to the governor against it.
While Tucker was not as staunchly opposed to Tanner’s bill as OSD, she said it is still not enough.
“[We’re] trying to work with the governor’s office to make sure it’s closer to what we want education reform to be, as opposed to just setting up another for-profit center for somebody.”
She said the biggest problem is “that it’s too vague and open-ended, and it still does not address the issues of why children are failing. It still sounds more like a business proposition than dealing with generational poverty.”
A better move, she said, would be to create more of a community school, as she said is being done in Cincinnati.
“It has the jargon we like to hear, but what it’s really saying and really doing is a hollow compromise,” she said. “The good news is it’s not a constitutional amendment.”
Tanner’s bill has appeased some political activists.
Bette Holland, chair of the Dawson County Democratic Party and also an opponent of OSD last fall, surprised the room last week by voicing her full support of the legislation.
“This bill addresses all of the issues that we had with Amendment One,” Holland said. “It’s a wonderful bill. [Tanner] listened to what you all said … it has taken away the extra bureaucracy of the superintendent who only had to be a business person with no educational qualifications.
“I can’t think of anything in this bill that I would try to change. There are some things we need to add, but just like [Tanner said], that’s part of the process.”
Editor Kayla Robins contributed to this report.