Raising the Standard.

Outrage and Overreach: Amendment One to Georgia’s Constitution

22 of the 98 schools in the Atlanta Public Schools District have been failing for the last three years, making them eligible for state takeover under Amendment One.

“We have almost 68,000 Georgia students who are required by law to attend a chronically failing school” notes Gov. Deal in a recent video. “I stand firm on the principle that every child can learn, and I stand equally firm in the belief that the status quo isn’t working.” For a state that ranks 38th in the quality and effectiveness of its education system, Governor Deal and the policymakers in Georgia felt it was time for a change and have therefore proposed an amendment to the state constitution in an effort to improve quality of education. Benevolent as it may seem though, the bill has received a plethora of opposition popularized by banners flown around Sanford Stadium, stickers, yard signs, facebook posts, and the like.

The measure will appear as a yes or no question on the November 8th ballot as follows: “Shall the Constitution of Georgia be amended to allow the state to intervene in chronically failing public schools in order to improve student performance?”

To summarize this amendment to the State Constitution is a lengthy but worthwhile task. It allows the state to assume the “supervision, management, and operation of public elementary and secondary schools” which have been determined to be ‘failing’ three years in a row according to a measure “based on student achievement, achievement gap closure, and student growth.” Qualified schools would stay under state control until the completion of three consecutive years of a passing grade or a maximum of ten years under state control. The state would be limited to having under its control only 100 schools at any given time and would be able to take control of only twenty schools per year. In the case of a state takeover, the Governor would select a Superintendent who, after being confirmed by the Senate, would “serve at the pleasure of the Governor” and “annually provide a report” on the schools under state control.

In short, the Superintendent would be authorized to carry out a number of tasks, among them: setting goals for, utilizing federal, state, and local funding for, and managing a qualifying school, applying a qualifying school to become a charter school, and/or recommending the closure of a qualifying school and reassigning its students to surrounding schools “as an intervention of last resort.” Despite the apparent good intentions of the amendment, it has run into opposition from a wide variety of political actors.

UGA professor and Clarke County Board of Education Official John Knox represents a portion of the opposition to this amendment concerned with the role of the would-be Superintendent. “[Gaines Elementary in Clarke County] is a brand new facility built in the last decade. It’s a pretty school, and it’s a nice school,” he says to the Red & Black. “It would make no sense for that school to be shut down and students dispersed. Your tax dollars would have been spent to build a school building that sits vacant because some unelected, governor-appointed czar decided there was no future for the school.”

It seems that Professor Knox’s statement, respectable as it is due to his stature, is a bit misleading. As indicated in the language of the amendment, school closure would be an intervention of last resort. Though it is impossible to speak for the “czar” (i.e. Superintendent) who will end up making a portion of the decision in the end, it is easy to point to the prevalence of logic and accountability within the state government, especially in the important, bipartisan, and personal realm of education. Even a cautious, semi-Orwellian interpretation of the “last resort” phrase in the amendment yields the logical conclusion that a school closure would be in the best interest of the students. Moreover, the amendment would still allow for the local school board to continue to try its hand in fixing failing schools before the state takes over by essentially giving it three strikes (i.e. schools are only eligible for takeover in the case of three consecutive academic years without a passing grade).

Multiple education organizations have voiced their opposition to the amendment as well. A Republican Board of Education in Cherokee County, a county with no current schools that would currently be considered failing, has opposed the legislation. Although there are nearly two dozen schools currently deemed failing according to state measures under its jurisdiction, the DeKalb County Board of Education has also released a statement opposing the amendment, cautioning that “it is not only wrong but risky to give up local control to a new state bureaucracy.” With a plethora of failing schools on their hands, it is difficult to say whether this administration is deluding itself, overly confident in their reforms, power-hungry, or simply the subject of a poor and unchanging lack of student motivation. The Cherokee and DeKalb boards are not alone either; just in the Atlanta area, the Clayton, Newton, and Rockdale County Boards of Education have also formally voiced opposition. These counties believe that they have the control over the situation and want to inspire trust in their existing efforts.

The Georgia Parent Teacher Association (GPTA) is also lobbying for Georgians to vote against the enactment of the “school takeover amendment,” as many call it. In their magazine, they complain that the Opportunity School District (OSD), the statewide organization that would be charge of failing schools should Amendment One pass, would not call for input from the local community, teachers, or parents. In other words, it would render the GPTA relatively powerless. Yet, the GPTA does in fact have the opportunity to influence schools in their district before the state becomes involved by way of implementing enough change to boost a school past a grade of “failing” at least once every three years. Additionally, the amendment would mandate that the OSD and OSD Superintendent “establish and implement a process for gaining community feedback and input to inform his or her decision regarding the most appropriate intervention model for a particular school.” In the event of the transition into a charter school, the amendment even requires the creation of a “governing board,” which would consist of members of the community such as parents and would make decisions together with the charter school and the OSD Superintendent on issues including hiring/firing, finance, and cafeteria meals.  

Critics have also attacked the language used on the ballot and claim that it is misleading or confusing. In fact, the state of Georgia is currently fending off a class-action lawsuit because of the “misleading language.” It is up to the reader to decide whether this claim is substantiated. In an informal study by NPR conducted in Piedmont Park, most passers-by were not misled by the wording, but rather confused by “just kind of like some older language or just some big words” that make it necessary for some to read over the paragraph two or three more times.

In the end, as Governor Deal mentioned, education is the key to ending cycles of poverty and offering children in need a hand up to the ladder of opportunity. Those lobbying for their peers to vote one way or the other on this amendment seem to be doing so out of a genuine will for a better system. Ultimately, your vote will either take a risk in handing the responsibility of failing schools off to another more centralized, less locally-controlled state entity or continue to trust the efforts of local school boards in turning around the schools which have been failing the youth of Georgia and perpetuating inequities of opportunity. There is a reason that this amendment is so hotly debated, and it is not one that stems from a mere political divide.

Stay tuned for a detailed description of the other three amendments proposed on the November 8th, 2016 ballot from THE ARCH CONSERVATIVE.

All quotes stylized in italics are taken directly from Senate Bill 133 as signed by Governor Nathan Deal.

— Nick Geeslin is Managing Editor of the THE ARCH CONSERVATIVE.

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