A lot of us were caught off-guard in September when Gov. Nathan Deal said he wanted the state to have the power to take custody of perennially failing schools, following the lead of Louisiana’s Recovery School District. But not Erin Hames.
“The first conversation I ever had with Governor-elect Nathan Deal was about the Recovery School District,” Hames, Deal’s deputy chief of staff for policy, recalled Thursday. “So it’s been on his heart and mind for a long time.”
What got in the way? The Georgia Supreme Court’s 2011 ruling that the state’s charter schools commission wrongly impinged on local school districts. Deal wound up fighting instead for a constitutional amendment to reinstate the commission.
That fight delayed the push for a new Opportunity School District in Georgia by a few years. But the amendment’s comfortable passage, despite fierce opposition from the educational establishment, also showed how hungry Georgians are for more choices and significant changes for our schools.
“I would interpret that when you pass a constitutional amendment by (a majority of) 58 percent, that is a pretty strong indication that the public is not satisfied with the status quo,” Deal said in an interview with the AJC ahead of his second inaugural on Monday.
“Taking that further: If you look at those counties … which will have these failing schools in them, they had some of the highest percentages” in support of the amendment, Deal continued. “Clayton County is a classic example … (more than) 70 percent of Clayton County voted for that constitutional amendment. …
“So I think you take away from that (referendum) that the vast majority of people in this state know there’s a problem, and I think when you point out the specifics of the problem, I think they recognize that it’s time we did something.”
Deal is coming off a re-election campaign fought in significant part on the question of school funding. As in the election, he dismissed funding as the root of failing schools’ problems.
“That does not hold as a valid argument in my opinion,” he said, “because some of the districts that have failing schools already spend more per child than many of the other schools that are not failing. So money alone will not solve the problem … .
“Some of these just require drastic overhauls with new options being afforded to those children and their families.”
Those “drastic overhauls” could mean restructuring existing public schools, or putting them under new management, or closing them and opening new public charter schools. Any school deemed “failing” for at least three straight years could be placed in the Opportunity School District, though the state wouldn’t try to take over all such schools: After all, current data indicate one in nine public schools could be eligible.
Education status quoists will no doubt fight the measure. But Deal said he’s ready to take his case to legislators, two-thirds of whom in each chamber must agree to put it before voters next year.
“I cannot imagine any member of the General Assembly,” he said, “wanting to condemn any of their constituents and their children to failing schools.”