The fate of the Opportunity School District in Georgia that has sparked debates and controversy across the state will be decided by voters Nov. 8.
Gov. Nathan Deal proposed a constitutional amendment that allows the state to “temporarily step in to assist chronically failing public schools” according to the Office of the Governor website.
Failing schools are defined as those scoring below 60 on the College and Career Performance Index for three consecutive years. There are no schools in the Liberty County System or Long County School System on the list of eligible schools for the opportunity school district.
The ballot preamble:
“Provides greater flexibility and state accountability to fix failing school through increasing community involvement.”
The ballot question:
“Shall the Constitution of Georgia be amended to allow the state to intervene in chronically failing public schools in order to improve student performance?”
If passed, the OSD will become a state-wide district of no more than 20 schools per year. These schools will stay in the district no less than five years and no more than 10.
According to Senate Bill 133, which outlines the creation of the OSD, the governor will appoint a superintendent who will have to be confirmed by the senate. That superintendent will report directly to the governor and will be authorized to waive state board of education rules and policies, with the goal of improving student performance.
OSD schools can be managed three ways. First, to directly manage the schools, second, share the governance of school with the local school board, or third, change the school into an OSD charter school, according to the website.
This option involves working with the State Charter Schools Commission. The last resort is to close a failing school that is not enrolled to full capacity and reassign the students to other schools in the local school system not in the OSD.
The OSD Superintendent can hire or fire principals, teachers and staff. Any teachers let go from an opportunity school can stay an employee of the local board and the local board can decide whether or not to keep the teacher in the district.
Facilities of opportunity schools will be under the control of the OSD. The contents of the school, such as textbooks, technology and media resources will be available for use by the school. If a school is closed, the local board cannot use the facility to open a new school with the same grades or student population. The OSD is responsible for routine maintenance and repair of the building, while the local board is responsible for more extensive repairs.
Funding for OSD will come from state and federal grants and local tax dollars for schools. The General Assembly can also allocate funds to the school at the discretion of the OSD Superintendent and private funds can be solicited for support.
State Sen. Freddie Powell Sims (D-12), secretary of the Senate Education and Youth Committee who is in favor of OSD, wrote in an op-ed piece for the Atlanta Journal Constitution, “there is a real need for additional state intervention in the 127 chronically failing schools found mostly in rural and inner-city Georgia.”
“Some of the voting public oppose Amendment 1 because they would like to see more money allocate to schools without state intervention. However, some school districts with the same demographics have done very well academically by spending less money per pupil, while others spend more and remain stagnant,” Powell writes.
Powell called failing rural schools are “socioeconomic catastrophes.” He believes the OSD will provide additional resources and more accountability to struggling schools.
Supporters argue that the state has a moral duty to break the cycle of failing schools and rescue children.
Those in favor of OSD include Sen. Butch Miller (R-49), Sen. Lindsey Tippins (R-37), the Georgia State Board of Education and StudentsFirst Georgia.
Rep. Al Williams (D-168) voted against OSD in the state legislature.
Williams said he was “flabbergasted” at the amendment and does not want his money to be spent by someone who is not accountable to voters.
“This is against everything that state has done for education,” Williams said. “It has the potential to be devastating to public education.”
The OSD is patterned after the similar programs implemented in New Orleans and Tennessee which, Williams said, “failed miserably, not at the ballot box but in implementation because we’ve seen very little improvement.”
The Liberty County School System Board of Education recently signed a resolution opposing OSD, along with other counties in the state, such as Savannah-Chatham, and Bryan, Henry, Clayton and Fayette counties.
Opponents also argue that it is not clear how the OSD will improve schools.
Organizations and individuals opposed to OSD include the NAACP Liberty County branch, Georgia NAACP chapter, Georgia Parent Teachers Association, Committee to Keep Georgia Schools Local, Georgia School Superintendent Association, Andrew Young and Rep. Spencer Frye (D-118).
If passed the amendment will go into effect Jan. 1.