Georgia has something on its mind — and a lot of people think it’s a really bad idea.
The idea is in the form of a constitutional amendment that is on the Nov. 8 ballot. Called Amendment 1 and proposed by Republican Gov. Nathan Deal, it would allow the state to take over a certain number of “chronically failing public schools” and put them in the new state-run school district that would be modeled after those created in Louisiana and Tennessee.
Supporters say the new district would help improve troubled schools and provide new accountability to public school districts. Opponents say that the districts in the two other states have actually done poorly and that Amendment 1 is intentionally worded to promote the idea that the new “Opportunity School District” would really just be a way of taking some traditional schools and turning them into charter schools.
Opposition to the idea appears to be growing, not just among Democrats but also among some Republicans, and news reports from Georgia say the amendment could lose. An Atlanta Journal Constitution poll in October found voters siding 2 to 1 against the district.
Here is a podcast about the issue, one in a series called “Have You Heard” by Jennifer Berkshire and Aaron French. Berkshire is a freelance journalist and public education advocate who writes the lively EduShyster blog, where she discusses the serious consequences of corporate school reform. French is the creator of Education on Tap, a podcast produced by Teach for America.
Here is the transcript:
It is always hard to explain complicated issues to voters, especially when you don’t have much money.
Take Georgia, for example. Governor Nathan Deal wants to change the state constitution to allow the state to take over low-scoring public schools and hand them over to charter operators. It hasn’t worked anywhere else, but no matter. The amendment is being sold as a way to help kids and improve schools, when it is a transfer of public schools to private management. It is privatization of public schools and squelching of democracy.
How do you reach voters?
Here is one way: Someone hired an airplane to fly over a University of Georgia football game flying a banner that said:
“No School Takeover. Vote NO on Amendment 1.”
Georgia Has Something on It’s Mind: When voters in Georgia go to the polls, they face another decision besides Clinton versus Trump. They’ll also be weighing in on a single divisive sentence. Shall the constitution of Georgia be amended to allow the state to intervene in chronically failing public schools in order to improve student performance? In this episode of “Have You Heard,” we head to Atlanta to talk to voters, including parents, about why the proposal to amend the state constitution is so controversial.
Aaron French: Hey, everyone. Welcome to this addition of Have You Heard, I’m Aaron French.
Jennifer Berkshire: I’m Jennifer Berkshire. Aaron, I can tell by your, somewhat far-away sound, that you must be in the remote Have You Heard production studios.
French: I am indeed, in a very super-secret location.
Berkshire: Do you know where I am?
French: There’s definitely something different about your voice. I can’t quite place it.
Berkshire: If you’re picking up on a slight Southern accent, it’s not because I’m making fun of you. I’m in Georgia.
French: What are you doing down there?
Berkshire: I headed down to Georgia with my microphone because there’s a hotly contested question on the ballot that voters are going to be weighing in on. They’re voting on whether to amend the state constitution to give the governor the power to take over struggling schools.
French: My understanding is what makes this really unique is that it’s the first time in history that any state has put this kind of question on a ballot for elections.
Berkshire: That’s correct, and what I discovered as I went around and talked to people who are directly affected by the question is that they have a lot to say.
French: Let’s hear from them then.
Berkshire: When voters in Georgia go to the polls, they face another decision besides Clinton versus Trump. They’ll also be weighing in on a single divisive sentence. Shall the constitution of Georgia be amended to allow the state to intervene in chronically failing public schools in order to improve student performance? Got that?
Kimberly Brookes: You’re changing the Georgia Constitution, that is major.
Berkshire: By amending the state constitution, voters will the state the authority to take over some 140 struggling Georgia schools. It’s called an Opportunity School District, modeled on what happened with the New Orleans public schools after Katrina. While these independent state-run districts are now popping up around the country, what makes Georgia different is that it’s the first time the question has been put before voters. You can put parent advocate and Atlanta native Kimberly Brookes down as a no.
Brookes: It’s just misleading. Pretty simple, should the governor’s office intervene for failing schools? There are psychological triggers. That’s my own view of that. When you think of failing, that’s horrible. You think of these little kids. You think of the teacher. “Oh, my God, yes” but “no” because what is not said is very broad. How are you defining failing?
Berkshire: If you want to see just how intense the debate over Amendment 1 has gotten, go no further than a discussion around the preamble. Those are the 14 words on the ballot that introduce the school takeover plan to voters. “Provides greater flexibility and state accountability to fix failing schools through increasing community involvement.”
Brookes: What does this mean? Will the parent be able to have a voice over a school in their area? If you’re a parent and you’re a taxpayer and you contribute a lot to your taxes, do you want to not even have a say-so in your superintendent because they are going to be appointed? Do you not want to have any say-so in the operations and the spending of the school? Because you’ll lose those rights. Do you know that?
Berkshire: The answers to these questions are buried deep in the legislation that will go into effect if voters approve Amendment 1. With new powers, the state can step in and close schools with persistently low test scores. It can turn them over to charter operators, it could run the schools directly or jointly with the local school board.
The decisions will largely be in the hands of a state-appointed superintendent. In other words, it’s complicated and, as Brookes sees it, political.
Brookes: Some of my, and I say my parents because they are mine, they’re hard-working people, and they have a lot of other challenges. If the school system has the responsibility to do it. They should not be concerned about when their child goes to school any politics in one of the, supposed to be, most safest places and sacred structures, elementary school.
Berkshire: Brookes started advocating for parents back in 2012 when the Atlanta public schools closed a dozen schools. Community meetings were held for parent input. She says that even though parents spoke up, they weren’t heard. She’s worried that the governor’s school takeover plan will eliminate the little voice that her parents do have.
Brookes: I decided to become an advocate because a lot the parents that I served as a PTA president, it was an eye-opener for me. I didn’t realize the social problems that they had that influenced their ability to be involved in their children’s lives and to even understand what quality education looks like. I felt that it was my responsibility to start advocating for parents.
Berkshire: The question of whether to amend the Georgia Constitution will be decided by voters across the state. The schools that dominate the takeover list are largely congregated in and around Atlanta. They have something else in common, too. According to the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute, the schools on the list are attended by students who are overwhelmingly African American and low income.
Valerie Williams: Washington High was established in 1924. It was the first African American high school in the Southeast. People came from far and near to matriculate here. We’ve had proud alumnus such as Martin Luther King Jr. We have Lena Horne. We have Pearlie Dove, Nipsey Russell, Louis Sullivan.
Berkshire: That’s Valerie Williams. She’s an alumni of Booker T. Washington High School on Atlanta’s west side. It’s been on and off the list of schools that could, potentially, be taken over. It’s not the only historic African American school whose fate hangs in the balance.
Williams: What this would mean for us is that, how can a state even allow a school that’s on the National Historic Registry be even in this place? That’s not only the Booker T. Washington, it’s the Frederick Douglass, it’s the Benjamin E. Mays. The schools of whom are named after great African Americans. How can you not be intentional about the success of these schools?
Berkshire: When Williams thinks about community involvement, she has in mind the huge community of people who attended historic black schools like Booker T. Washington. While voters may be determining the future of these schools, Williams says their potential takeover is also a threat to the past.
Williams: What this would mean to us is our 90-plus years of legacy and history would be gone. There is no other school, there is no other place in the world like our Booker T. Washington High School in Atlanta, Georgia.
Berkshire: If creating a state-run school district that scoops up struggling schools isn’t the answer, what is? Williams says that when she looks at successful schools in the Atlanta area, she sees a clear difference.
Williams: What I believe we need is the same equitable resources that schools that are being successful have. If we receive the equitable amount of resources in personnel that have made the north side successful, we would be successful.
Berkshire: Williams would also like to see the governor, who’s the driving force behind the Opportunity School District, focus much more on the communities around the schools, especially at a time when neighborhoods like hers in west Atlanta are gentrifying rapidly. Its poorest residents risk being left behind or pushed out altogether.
Williams: If the governor was very intentional about really pulling people up from the bootstrap, it’s not just education. You have to go into these communities. You have to show people a difference. You have to show people without displacing them.
Berkshire: By now, you’re probably getting the sense that the debate over Amendment 1 in Georgia isn’t just about struggling schools or accountability. It’s about history and resources, who gets to make decisions and, above all, it’s about race. Take one of the ads that’s been airing in favor of the ballot question.
Audio of Yes on 1 Campaign ad:
I think it’s devastating that there’s 68,000 children that are in failing schools.
Our children cannot wait for a good education. They deserve a good education.
The Opportunity School District is not going to affect those that are already doing well.
This is an opportunity to help those students that have been failing for decades.
I just can’t imagine what those other parents have to go through. That’s why I’m voting yes for the Opportunity School District.
Vote “yes” on Question 1.
Kent McGuire: Even in the advertising that’s on television and, now, you have a person on camera, basically, saying to us, “Don’t worry, you can vote for this. This is about other people’s kids.”
Berkshire: Kent McGuire is the head of the Southern Education Foundation, a group that got it’s start 150 years ago as part of the effort to help blacks in the South assimilate after the Civil War. He says that he can’t help but recall Georgia’s past when he considers the proposal to set up a separate school district for students who are overwhelmingly poor and African American.
McGuire: It makes you worry that this is about creating a dual system, not about creating one really high-quality system for all kids. It does make you worry about that a lot.
Berkshire: The campaign to sell Amendment 1 to voters is heavy on feel-good buzz words: opportunity, achievement, accountability. McGuire says he’s noticed one notable omission. There’s no talk about what schools that are part of the Opportunity School District will actually do. Nothing about teaching or learning.
McGuire: There is no underlying vision for teaching and learning that has been expressed here or revealed — none. I don’t think people, the architects of this, believe we have a design problem in our education system. They just think we have a managerial one. That is the tip of the iceberg, is the point I would want to make.
Berkshire: Amendment 1 is running strong among backers of Georgia’s Republican Governor Nathan Deal. They’re not the only ones who support it. Priscilla Davenport says that while many of her DeKalb County neighbors are opposing the Opportunity School District, you can put her down as a “yes” vote.
Priscilla Davenport: For me, as a parent, I feel that I know what has not worked in more than 10 years. I’m willing to make a change, to try something new.
Berkshire: Davenport grew up in this metro-Atlanta county, and she says she can still recall a time when its schools were a draw.
Davenport: When I was younger and living in DeKalb County School District, it was the top school district. Everyone was moving to attend the schools in DeKalb County.
Berkshire: Today, though, Davenport’s daughter attends a high school that’s on the state takeover list. Davenport says she chose to send her daughter to the school instead of a charter or magnet because it had been slated to undergo a transformation. Four years in, she’s frustrated that not much seems transformed.
Davenport: The education level did not really increase even though the funding and the programs were put in place. A lot of those things, maybe they just didn’t work. I’m not sure but, for sure, the education level of the school did not increase. The enrollment dropped because a lot of people after seeing that, they decided to take their children to other schools.
Berkshire: Davenport says when she looks at the list of schools that could be taken over by the state, she notices something else they share besides the demographics of the students. Few of them have really active and engaged parents.
Davenport: If you check the research on parent involvement, most of the passing schools have high parental involvement and welcoming parents and gathering parents and doing things with parents and involving parents in the educational process of their children.
Berkshire: Listening to Davenport, I’m struck by just how much she sounds like parent advocate Kimberly Brookes, who’s leading the charge against Amendment 1. If Brookes fears for what a state takeover will mean for parental involvement in the future, Davenport says schools like her daughter’s make it way too hard for parents to make their voices heard now.
Davenport: I did realize that as parents are actively involved in the school, it’s always not a welcome door with the leadership. When you are going in school and you’re participating and you’re being very active in your child’s education life, that’s not always wanted on a higher level.
Berkshire: Davenport says she’s under no illusion that a state-run takeover will be a cure-all to the problems confronting schools like those in DeKalb County. In fact, she’s aware that similar efforts in other states have been controversial and have produced, at best, mixed results.
Davenport: No one knows whether this will work or not, but we are hoping that it will work if it passes because, at least, it opens a door for our community to address education.
Berkshire: Even staunch Amendment 1 opponent Kent McGuire says he has to give the governor some credit for raising the issue of how best to educate students in Georgia who need the most help.
McGuire: We’re not saying schools that aren’t performing well don’t need help, we do. Let me commend the governor for taking an interest in the lowest-performing schools in Georgia. He was right to do so. The real question is, what’s the best way to do that?
Berkshire: Thanks for tuning into another installment of “Have You Heard.” If my math is correct, that brings us up to episode number 8, which means that our 10-part series is almost over. If you really like what you’ve been hearing and maybe want to encourage us to do more, or have ideas about episodes we haven’t touched on, this would be a good time to drop us a line. You can find us on Twitter. I’m @EduShyster, and Aaron is @AaronMoFoFrench. Until next time, I’m Jennifer Berkshire, and that’s what we’ve heard.