Georgia Governor Nathan Deal’s statewide Opportunity School District, a state takeover plan for so-called “failing” schools, will appear before Georgia’s voters in November. His plan will become part of the state constitution if voters approve it. The timing is bad for Deal, however, because public opinion and expert opinion seems to be turning against the kind of scheme he has proposed. More and more evidence is accruing that statewide “achievement” school districts do not improve student achievement; neither do statewide “opportunity” districts expand learning opportunities. Let’s hope voters are paying attention!
Jack Hazzard, a professor emeritus at Georgia State University, explains exactly how Governor Deal’s state takeover Opportunity School District will work: “The misguided Governor of Georgia, Nathan Deal, has pushed through an amendment to the Georgia Constitution (if approved by the electorate) to enable a czar within the Governor’s office to name 20 schools per year from around the state that are considered ‘failing schools’ based on the state’s use of high stakes testing. Using an arbitrary cutoff score of 60 on Georgia’s school evaluation measure, the state has identified a list of schools around Georgia that they believe are chronically failing. The Georgia plan is essentially a ‘turnaround’ strategy of school reconstitution. There is a quartet of plans out there including transformation (fire the principal followed by changing around the school and testing the heck out of students to see if it worked), turnaround (fire the principal and… 50% of the teachers, and then test the heck out of the students), restart (bring in a charter school), and closure (a devastating measure, as Chicago can attest)… According to Senate Bill 133, which authorized an amendment to be placed on the November ballot, the state will use the ‘restart’ model, and turn all ‘chronically failing’ schools into charter schools.”
Today’s statewide “takeover school districts” are an expanded version of the old fashioned state takeovers, in which the state seized a bankrupt or low-scoring school district and imposed an overseer to clean things up. To my knowledge, these old-fashioned state occupations of existing school districts have not ever turned things around. The emergency austerity managers for the poorest school districts in Michigan are the latest examples. Newark, New Jersey’s public schools have been under state control for over twenty years, and New Jersey now seems to be considering demands from the citizens of Newark to bring back at least some local control. The School District of Philadelphia has been overseen for years by a state-appointed School Reform Commission, and that hasn’t worked either, a situation made worse because the state legislature has reduced state funding and continued to operate without a fair distribution formula. Schools in Cleveland were managed by the state, which then gave back local control when the plan didn’t really work.
In recent years, we have had a wave of experimentation with a new plan—statewide “opportunity” and “achievement” districts that copy the Louisiana Recovery School District that took over all but a very few New Orleans schools after Hurricane Katrina in 2005 along with other Louisiana schools that were said to be failing. After more than a decade, Louisiana has ended the RSD in New Orleans, where schools, now all contracted out to charter school operators, are being returned to a loose form of local oversight despite that the charter boards really control their schools. Louisiana’s RSD has been copied as a model for more recent “achievement” and “opportunity” districts, but evidence has begun to demonstrate that the New Orleans model is not such a model after all. The high test scores in the schools that were part of the RSD have derived from an odd factor in the Louisiana experiment: emergency legislation after the hurricane permitted the charter schools in the Louisiana RSD to be selective—that is to use all sorts of admissions screens including entrance examinations. According to researchers at Stanford University: “Louisiana’s charter law explicitly allows some schools to engage in selective enrollment practices that resemble those of private schools—for example, requiring minimum grade point averages and standardized test scores….” “It is clear that the organization of schools in New Orleans is highly stratified: The school tiers sort students by race, income, and special education status, with the most advantaged students at the top and the least advantaged at the bottom. Only the top two sub-tiers within Tier 1 have any appreciable number of white and Asian students and any noticeable number of students who are non-poor.” Some of the schools in the Louisiana Recovery School District were very successful in posting high test scores: they were the very schools that had selected the students who were likely to score well on standardized tests.
Then there is Rick Snyder’s disastrous Education Achievement Authority (EAA) in Michigan—the state takeover failure that will keep dragging on until its already-announced demise at the end of the 2016-2017 school year. It was formed as a collaborative plan between the state and Eastern Michigan University, but EMU’s board of regents pulled their support in shame last winter, activating an automatic 18 month sunset clause. The EAA originally hired John Covington as its chancellor, but he was fired after the experimental BUZZ online curriculum from Agilix Labs in Utah was shown to be not fully operational well after students had been using it for sometime. Internal SCANTRON testing by the EAA showed students to be thriving, but Michigan’s statewide exams proved EAA students had fallen far behind their counterparts across the state. Now, even though EAA is on its deathbed, Veronica Conforme, its current chancellor, has tried to pull strings to arrange that EAA, which owes $14.8 million to the bankrupt Detroit Public Schools will be forgiven this debt. Finally it was exposed in August that an agency called the School Empowerment Network, a Brooklyn, New York non-profit, established in February 2016, is now operating the Michigan Education Achievement Authority. Mercedes Schneider, who has extensively researched the money behind schemes for the privatization of education, describes Veronica Conform’s new arrangement with the School Empowerment Network: “The district running Michigan’s lowest-performing schools awarded a $1.7 million training contract to a company that scored 8th out of 10 companies seeking the work…. The School Empowerment Network, or SEN, has no office, no listed phone number, an unfinished website and a seven-member staff. Its initial bid of $2.3 million was more than twice the $1 million bid submitted by the highest-scoring firm, Boston based Public Consulting Group, which has 60 offices in the U.S., Canada and Europe. Most of SEN’s current staff worked formerly for New York City schools at the same time Veronica Conforme, the current chancellor of the financially troubled Education Achievement Authority, also worked there. The contract was awarded as the EAA is under siege because of poor academic performance, declining enrollment and an FBI investigation into kickback schemes involving vendors.” The assumption is that the School Empowerment Network is being brought in to manage what is expected to be the shut-down of EAA at the end of this school year.
Several major reports in the past year alone condemn state takeover school districts. A year ago the Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools attacked state takeover districts for denying democratic control to citizens in usually poor, black and brown communities where the state takeover districts seize low-scoring schools: “Instead of barriers to the ballot box, local elected government is being dissolved altogether. This fall, tens of thousands of students are returning to schools that have been placed under state authority. Elected school boards have been dissolved or stripped of their power and voters have been denied the right to local governance of their public schools. These state takeovers are happening almost exclusively in African American and Latino schools and districts—in many of the same communities that have experienced decades of under-investment in their public schools…. In the past decade, these takeovers have not only removed schools from local authorities, they are increasingly being used to facilitate the permanent transfer of the schools from public to private management.”
Last December, the Southern Education Foundation and the Annenberg Institute for School Reform directly attacked Governor Deal’s plan in Georgia based on the experience in other states: “(E)ffective school reform isn’t done to communities, parents, students, educators and administrators. It is done with them. Top-down mandates, school takeovers, external corporate operators—these strategies have not proven successful in building high quality public education in Georgia, or anywhere else. It is the teachers, the school leaders, the students and parent who must carry out and push forward any improvement strategies. It is these same, local individuals who will be asked to support their public schools with their tax dollars. If they are not personally invested in change, change will fail.”
Then in February came the report from the Center for Popular Democracy: “State Takeovers of Low Performing Schools… highlights how school takeovers have proven to be a very ineffective method for yielding the benefit that the state uses to justify the intrusion on local citizens’ democratic rights… (S)chool takeovers have failed in Louisiana, Michigan and have had mixed results, at best, in Tennessee. Nonetheless, to think that a state, that in most cases has less management capacity than the district… (it is) taking over, can produce a better outcome lacks clear strategy and ignores outcome data… At best, these state takeover intrusions are bad policy, and at worst they create constitutional violations. It cannot go unnoticed that an overwhelming percentage of the districts that have experienced takeovers serve poor African American and Latino students and voters. The fact that this trend only occurs in districts like New Orleans, Memphis, Nashville, and Detroit, that are predominately made up of people of color, raises serious federal civil rights issues.”
Two recent commentaries sum up the problems embodied in Governor Deal’s proposed constitutional amendment to create a statewide school takeover district in Georgia. Myra Blackmon of the Athens Banner-Herald summarizes the evidence from other states that have tried Governor Deal’s idea as she attacks proponents of Georgia’s constitutional amendment: “These rescuers must have been living on another planet if they haven’t seen their proposed ‘solution,’ a state takeover with no accountability, go down in shame all over the country. They tried it in New Orleans and gave up because it didn’t work. They’ve been trying it in Nashville, and the confiscated schools are doing worse than they were when their ‘rescue’ began. They tried it in Detroit and 11 of 14 schools that were ‘rescued’ are still failing. The so-called ‘Opportunity School District’ is among the worst of a long string of dangerous ideas and policies forced on local school districts in Georgia… The language both on the ballot and in the enabling legislation sounds like a plan for everyone to hold hands and happily work to improve education. But that’s a lie.”
Finally, Bruce Dixon, managing editor of the Black Agenda Report, calls Governor Deal’s plan a power grab: “The so-called ‘Opportunity School District,’ as its corporate funded multimillion dollar advertising campaign calls it, empowers the governor, through an agency he appoints, to decide what schools are ‘failing,’ usually by low scores on standardized tests. It authorizes the closing of a hundred Georgia public schools, almost entirely in black Georgia. The governor then gets to fire up a virtual school district stretching across the entire state, a district in which he alone appoints all the officials on whatever basis at whatever salary suits him. OSD lets the governor create up to a hundred new charter schools in his virtual district to eat the funds which used to go to these public schools. The new OSD charter schools will make fortunes for their investors and contractors, who have already and will continue to donate generously to the governor and his friends. OSD’s charter schools will only be responsible to their own boards and investors, and of course the governor… The leading candidate to head this contraption is said to be Illinois Democrat Paul Vallas, who shredded the public schools of Chicago and Philly before being named the first head of the post-Katrina New Orleans Recovery School District….”