A relatively light year for major legislation under the Gold Dome in 2016 means the most important achievements for the current collection of lawmakers came last year. The one having perhaps the biggest effect so far is one that still hasn’t become law yet.
Voters in November will decide the fate of the Opportunity School District, Gov. Nathan Deal’s bid to force dramatic changes at schools that have produced dreadful results for years. But dramatic changes are already coming to some of Atlanta’s worst public schools, and it’s safe to say this wouldn’t be happening if not for the mere possibility they’d have been subject to a state takeover.
The Atlanta school board this week approved a radical overhaul sought by Superintendent Meria Carstarphen. All 26 schools on the state’s list of failing schools will receive some kind of attention. But 15 of them are getting what the district calls “targeted interventions,” the kind one might expect the OSD to pursue with the schools it selected.
Some failing schools are closing. Some are merging with higher-performing schools. At least one new school will open.
But perhaps the most exciting element of the plan is the one that will turn over management of five schools in the Carver High School cluster to charter-school operators. Not only will this allow APS to focus its attention and most talented leaders on the remaining failing schools. It’s exciting because the charter operators chosen are local organizations that have already proven themselves.
Purpose Built Schools, which created the highly successful Drew Charter School in East Lake, will take on four of the five schools in the Carver cluster. The fifth will be managed by Kindezi Schools, which already operates a high-performing charter school on the west side and last fall opened a second school, in the Old Fourth Ward.
This is exactly how charter schools are supposed to work. Not all of them will be successful, and the failures should be shut down. But the ones that succeed, especially in areas where traditional public schools haven’t, should be encouraged to multiply, to share their experiences, and to take over schools that aren’t performing well.
While there are several national operators that could serve our local communities well, it’s that much better when the operators are locally grown. They already understand the lay of the land, the people who work for and are served by the district, the local resources available to them, the challenges they face.
But there is little, if any, reason to believe this plan would have come to fruition absent the competitive pressures posed by the OSD. All of these strategies were available before the Legislature voted last year to put it to a statewide referendum. They simply weren’t taken.
How many more districts could be spurred to try similar innovations if the OSD is approved? How many schools with stubborn leaders could get the interventions their students need if the OSD is allowed to act?
The mere possibility isn’t enough, and it won’t even exist any longer if the measure is defeated. It’s imperative that voters not let this opportunity slip away.