My first post of 2013 has been slow to emerge because I have been doing a lot of reading and listening. The Georgia General Assembly kicked off its 2013 legislative session with a bang. Legislators are struggling to balance politics and sound policy as Georgia's education system faces several obstacles:
- Governance and accountability continue to distract our attention from the issues of student achievement. Dekalb County Schools, the 3rd largest school system in the state (with nearly 100,000 students) had been placed on probation for AdvancED, the state accreditation agency, in late 2012. Hearings are in progress to determine whether the Governor will exercise is powers to remove an entire local board of education and take a greater role in the turnaround efforts. In addition, their embattled superintendent, Dr. Cheryl Atkinson, is rumored to be on the verge of either resigning or being terminated. This is a school district that is graduating only 58% of its students.
- In late 2012, all states reported graduation rates under a common formula, and Georgia ranked 46th out of 50 states, at only 67%! Minority students' graduation rates were less than 60%.
- Georgia has been trying to implement an ambitious set of reforms as part of its Race to the Top grant. The U.S. DOE recently expressed a concern that Georgia is one of the three states (others are DC and Maryland) that are struggling with various aspects of their implementations. For Georgia, it pertains to the introduction and implementation of a new teacher evaluation plan, which is a central piece of the state’s $400 million Race to the Top grant, and the portion related to this plan is now been put on "high risk" by the DOE. According to local journalists who participated in a press call discussing the situation with Georgia's grant application, "Federal officials feared that Georgia has strayed too far from its original plans to create a teacher/leader evaluation system with four key components: classroom observations, student growth, a reduction in the student achievement gap and student surveys. They also worry that the state is proposing changes before it finds out how well the proposed new evaluations worked. They were tried out in 26 school districts from January to May of last year." One of the ongoing challenges working against the implementation of reforms in Georgia is the redundancies in the organization structure. Georgia allows its citizens to elect both a Governor AND a State School Superintendent, as opposed to the latter being appointed by the Governor. As such, Georgia operates two separate departments: the State Board of Education and the Governor's Office of Student Achievement ("GOSA"). GOSA has been tasked with leading the implementation of the RT3 grant, but clearly, there is structural tension, especially given that the State Superintendent (a Republican) chose to change his position on the charter school amendment and oppose the Governor on this issue, which ultimately became a referendum on charter schools as opposed to the benefits of an appellate system for authorizing charter school applications. Even on a local level, mayors in urban districts do not have any direct influence over their schools, unlike what takes place in New York City and Washington DC. Mayors will, however, take all the adverse backlash from a school system that is failing, yet has little direct ability to improve it.
- Because of these ongoing challenges with Georgia's public schools, the public discourse continues to focus a disproportionate amount of bandwidth on school choice. The Republican-led majority has followed up the charter school amendment by introducing parent trigger legislation to make Georgia the 8th state to adopt such legislation.
- Vouchers are also coming back to the forefront in Georgia. Legislators are looking to expand the availability of tax credit scholarship program before ensuring that the potential "moral hazards" with such programs are eliminated. The main issue is the "secrecy" in which many of these programs operate, and the lack of reporting requirements has resulted in instances of alleged corruption with the program's implementation.
Will Georgia become the 8th state with a parent trigger law?
We all realize that Georgia faces significant challenges with the state of its public education system. Funding education continues to be a major challenge, due to both a soft economy and an electorate that is expressing its frustration with the dysfunction of the public education system, not just in Georgia but around the country. We cannot abandon the traditional public schools in this reform effort. The parent trigger legislation can play a critical role in the reform efforts, because it shifts some power back to the parents, whose tax dollars are used to fund public education. The problem is that mechanism's intent is a check and balance system on governance, along with being a "last resort" option when a public school is "failing" and the local school board is not adequately representing the parents who elected them to office. The intent of this legislation is NOT to allow any public school to become a charter school. These schools are not the magic bullet to save public education. They can be used as a powerful tool to foster innovation in public education, but we should not expect the traditional public school to become dormant. In addition, because of "constraints" in the state constitution, the bill currently permits local school boards to reject parent petitions, which dilutes the power of the trigger. While there are other problems with the bill as currently drafted, it is my hope that rational minds will prevail, and Georgia will work in a bi-partisan manner to pass a bill whose intent is narrowly focused on turning around failing schools versus promulgating the foolhardy notion that we can reform public education by simply turning every public school into a charter school.
We need to get back to basics and focus on policies that improve student achievement. Lets try and focus on career readiness, a sound curriculum, and ensuring every public school has a modern technological infrastructure to integrate digital learning into its curriculum. Right now, it appears that politics are overshadowing sound policy, and we run the risk of passing legislation that negates, rather than enables, reform efforts in Georgia.