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What’s Up With Those Constitutional Amendments, Anyway?

Athens parents Carla and John Braswell want the best education for their daughter, Addie, a first-grader at Whitehead Road Elementary School. New to the Clarke County School District, they want to be involved at Addie’s school and be informed as she progresses toward second grade.

When they heard about the Opportunity School District amendment on the ballot in November, they weren’t exactly sure what the change would mean for their daughter or her school. The couple decided to learn more before going to the polls in a few weeks. “I’m new at this. I wanted to get involved and learn the legislative language,” said Carla Braswell, a local insurance agent. The Braswells attended a Chamber of Commerce meeting in October that discussed what Amendment 1 would mean for Georgia overall and Clarke County Schools in particular.

“There are a lot of moving pieces, and I know it’ll affect not only my child, but all children in the county,” she said. “Really, this affects the community as a whole.”

The constitutional amendment would allow the state to take over schools labeled as “chronically failing” and install a new official appointed by the governor to control school operations and funding. Of the state’s 2,200 schools, 127 are considered to be “failing,” and under the amendment, the state could take over 20 per year for five years. In Athens, Gaines Elementary School could potentially land on that list, even though it’s been praised by State School Superintendent Richard Woods as an example of how test scores don’t tell the whole story.

Although the legislation that created the amendment received the required two-thirds majority support in both the Georgia House and Senate this spring, the amendment itself has faced strong opposition thie fall from both statewide education groups and local educators.

“Think about this at the federal level. To change the Constitution, it really changes the fundamental principles about how our country operates,” said Clarke County School Superintendent Phil Lanoue, who has voiced opposition to the amendment throughout 2016. “As soon as we approve an amendment, it creates a hole that can now expand, shrink or change shape through legislative action in the future.”

Where It Came From

Amendment 1 grew from Senate Bill 133, which was introduced this spring to create a statewide “Opportunity School District.” The legislation requires a constitutional amendment because it deals with funding and would allow a governor-appointed official to receive, control and spend appropriated funds in the districts that are overtaken.

Voters won’t see the full amendment at the polls, but rather a question that doesn’t explain specifics: “Shall the Constitution of Georgia be amended to allow the state to intervene in chronically failing public schools in order to improve student performance?” A lawsuit in Fulton County is challenging the wording as misleading.

Schools considered “chronically failing” scored below 60 on the Georgia Department of Education accountability measure in 2013, 2014 and 2015.

“They’ll take Gaines Elementary, and we’ll have to pay for it,” Lanoue said at the Chamber of Commerce presentation. “We’ll maintain the building and still provide transportation, yet they bring in new faculty and staff, and we have to figure out where our current people go.”

State Rep. Regina Quick (R-Athens) said that the ballot measure won’t affect Athens because she expects Gaines’ College and Career Readiness Performance Index score to rise. “I don’t think we’ve got chronically failing schools” in Athens; the measure is primarily aimed at schools in metro Atlanta, Augusta and Albany, she said.

The amendment was modeled after the Recovery School District in Louisiana and the Achievement School District in Tennessee. Georgia officials in support of the amendment say Louisiana and Tennessee schools have seen “drastic increases in school attendance, graduation rates and college enrollments.” At the same time, recent news reports point to issues with human resources, payroll, travel reimbursements and test scores in both states.

In Georgia, Gov. Nathan Deal sees the amendment as his “signature education legislation,” saying the state has “too many schools where students have little hope of attaining the skills they need to succeed in the workforce or in higher education.”

The one statewide organization that has supported the legislation, Georgia Leads on Education, has promoted a two-minute video this fall, saying it’s “not fair” that parents have to send their kids to failing schools every day. It links failing schools to poverty, prison and high-school dropouts, saying that education reform is the “best criminal justice reform.” The website says the Opportunity School District will “empower local parents and teachers” and “require transparency and accountability.”

However, opponents say, state officials haven’t explained how that will happen. Since March, several statewide education organizations have announced opposition to the amendment, including the Georgia Association of Educators, Georgia Parent-Teacher Association, Georgia Federation of Teachers, Georgia School Boards Association, Professional Association of Georgia Educators and Georgia School Superintendents Association.

Athens’ representatives are split as well. Sens. Bill Cowsert (R-Athens) and Frank Ginn (R-Danielsville) voted in favor of the amendment twice. Quick and Rep. Chuck Williams (R-Watkinsville) voted against SB 133, the enabling legislation, but voted in favor of Senate Resolution 287, which put the issue on the ballot. Rep. Spencer Frye (D-Athens) missed the SB 133 vote because of a family emergency but voted against SR 287 and announced his opposition in January.

What It Would Do

Several Athens-area groups have held meetings this fall to discuss Amendment 1 in public with voters. Although the sessions weren’t packed, the intent seems to be spreading as signs pop up on lawns around town. At an Athens-Clarke County Federation of Neighborhoods meeting in early October, five panelists made it clear they would vote “no” in November.

“This represents everything I’ve spent my life fighting against with more big government and bureaucracy,” said C.J. Amason, a local parent and director of the Foundation for Excellence in Public Education. “As a conservative, this is ridiculous. It’s the worst underbelly of politics.”

Under the current setup, education policy is handled by the Governor’s Office of Student Achievement and the Georgia Department of Education, headed by the state superintendent that voters elect. Amendment 1 would create a third office and official to handle schools. That official, appointed by the governor, would have the power to create a charter-school board that could turn the school over to a private, for-profit management company. He also could take over the school himself, fire the principal and the teachers, and hire new ones. Or he could simply close the school and send the students elsewhere.

“This plan isn’t needed right now. We already have what we need,” said Karen Solheim, president of the Georgia Association of Educators-Retired. “The state is already looking at the achievement gap, and we need to allow time for it to take place.”

By July 1, Georgia schools were required to choose a governance model, and Clarke County Schools decided to become a charter system, which requires a governing body at each school to make decisions about how to implement countywide policies set by the school board. On Sept. 1, the district launched the local school governance teams to incorporate community into the decision-making process. So far, 430 community members have registered to join the teams, and in the next month, at-large members will be selected.

“It’s a journey. We just laid out the parameters and framework,” Lanoue said. “State lawmakers pushed this comprehensive reform movement but haven’t let it get started before looking for something else.”

The proposed amendment seems appropriate to some Athens parents who are eager to see change happen now. Jim Geiser, a local parent who ran a charter school in Baton Rouge under Louisiana’s Recovery School District, said he’ll vote in favor of Amendment 1.

“I’m hopeful it’ll force Athens to be more creative, and that it’ll bring in a new group of people with new ideas and a new spirit,” he said. “In Louisiana, we were able to do things that regular public schools couldn’t do, and it changed the way we thought about public education.”

At the same time, too much change could negatively affect recruitment and retention of teachers and staff, said Tommy Valentine, who attended local public schools and whose wife, Laura, teaches at Chase Street Elementary School. “I’ve seen what it’s like when this district is treated like a petri dish with new bus services and scheduling,” he said. “It makes it harder for people on the front lines. We need to understand the stakes here.”

In the end, many community members want to focus on local involvement and control, said Paul DeLargy, former principal of Barnett Shoals Elementary School and director of Real LEDGE, an entrepreneur education nonprofit. Whatever the next model is in Athens, he wants open and transparent governance that encourages parents and community members to get involved.

“Nobody knows the schools like the community itself,” said Shirley Evans, vice president of the ACC Federation of Neighborhoods. “In Athens, every kid gets free lunch or breakfast. I’d hate to see an Atlanta person take over and say we don’t need that anymore.”

If the amendment passes in November, the legislation will go into effect on Jan. 1. But don’t expect the battle to stop there. Several Atlanta educators are already preparing to launch a lawsuit if it passes, said CCSD board member Ovita Thornton. “Education is big money, y’all,” she said. “People have realized this now, but sadly, it has nothing to do with the kids.”

For many opponents, the amendment change is Georgia’s latest step in the conversation about education privatization. State legislators have already created limited voucher programs, and a charter-school amendment passed in 2012. This year’s amendment could pave the way for future privatization talks.

“Under this model, states run schools like businesses, but we’re not dealing with products. We’re dealing with people,” said Briana Bivens of Keep Georgia Schools Local. “You can’t toss the bad apple off the shelf.”

For Carla Braswell, the choice is becoming clearer for Nov. 8. “Under this, where does the community have say-so? There’s no transparency,” she said. “Of all the vague information out there, there’s no answer to the real question—how will this benefit our children?”

The Other Amendments

Amendment 1 isn’t the only one the ballot. Here’s what the others would do, in a nutshell. For more information, see Tom Crawford’s Capitol Impact columns from the Sept. 28 and Oct. 5 issues.

Amendment 2: Would create a special fund to pay for the housing, counseling and treatment of sex-trafficking victims using fines levied against those convicted of sexual exploitation and new taxes on strip clubs. A noble cause, but some question why strip clubs should pay for it.

Amendment 3: Would dissolve the Judicial Qualifications Commission, which investigates charges of ethical breaches by judges, allowing the legislature to create a new investigative body. Supporters say the JQC isn’t transparent, while critics contend that supporters (who include judges sanctioned by the JQC) don’t want any real oversight.

Amendment 4: The legislature legalized fireworks in 2014, and taxes collected on their sale have been going into the general fund. This amendment would earmark that money for trauma care, fire protection and public safety. [Blake Aued]