For a group that is generally extremely skeptical of government, Georgia voters are oddly trusting when it comes to Constitutional amendments. With its super-vague ballot language about “chronically failing public schools” and “improv[ing] student performance,” SR 287, like most amendments, almost certainly will pass by a wide margin, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a really terrible idea. At least, that’s what educators (and most Democrats) will tell you.
The referendum—on the ballot in November—would allow Gov. Nathan Deal to create an “Opportunity School District,” appointing an administrator (not the elected state school superintendent) to oversee up to 100 of the “worst” schools statewide, as defined by a rather opaque metric. One school that suddenly and mysteriously popped up on the list last year was Gaines Elementary here in Athens. Those schools have one thing in common: poverty.
State Rep. Spencer Frye (D-Athens) calls it the “Occupy School District”—and it’s not about helping students, but lining the pockets of for-profit charter school chains, he believes. “This will give private companies local tax dollars to run our schools,” he said at a separate forum organized by the Clarke County Democratic Committee.
The legislation is modeled after “school reform” experiments in places like New Orleans, Tennessee and Michigan. Another panelist, Marc Ginsberg, the Clarke County School District teacher of the year, said he was intrigued by New Orleans’ transformation a few years ago, but when he went down for a job interview, he came away… less than impressed. “It sounds great,” he said, but “it was one the most disorganized train wrecks I’d ever seen.”
At the heart of the “school reform” movement are two things: schools run privately with public dollars, and teachers who are paid based at least in part on their students’ test scores. Deal has also proposed “merit pay” for teachers, though he’s backed off for the time being.
As school board member Sarah Ellis pointed out, most of the politicians who back such plans send their kids to private school. “Why do we trust them to make decisions for our public schools?” she said. “They think it’s beneath them.”
Teachers have been political punching bags dating back at least to the Roy Barnes administration. They’ve dealt with budget cuts, pay cuts and furlough days. A recent state Department of Education survey found that morale is low, and 47 percent of teachers quit within five years. One can hardly blame them. “It’s a beleaguered profession that’s been told the past two decades—the past decade, I should say—that we stink; we’re horrible; we can’t get the job done,” retired CCSD teacher Beth Tatum said.
Ellis wondered how the governor’s appointee will be able to tap into 100 different communities and figure out what they need or recruit teachers. “To engage parents, you need teachers who stay a long time, live in communities and develop relationships,” Ginsberg said. You also need funding for pre-K and programs to stabilize students’ home lives, Frye said.
And quit messing with the standards, Tatum added. “It seems like every time we get halfway through reform, administration changes, and we scrap it,” she said. “It’s frustrating. Teachers are exhausted.”
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