[Editor’s Note: Journalist Mike Klein shares his insightful, blow-by-blow account of yesterday’s two-hour House-Senate discussion on Governor Deal’s proposal to create Opportunity School Districts in Georgia.]
By Mike Klein,
Governor Nathan Deal’s administration began to build the intellectual equity case for his “Opportunity School District” initiative during a joint House-Senate education committees hearing at the State Capitol. Deal is asking this year’s General Assembly to put a constitutional amendment on the 2016 ballot that if approved by voters would give the state a new tool to combat failing schools.
The worst failing schools could essentially become “wards of the state” until they are fixed or suffer some other fate. Deal has said 23 percent of Georgia public schools graded “D” or “F” for three consecutive years. The administration needs two-thirds approval by the Legislature to put a constitutional amendment before voters in November, 2016. Georgia is considered a school choice leader because of progress in charter schools and tax credit scholarships but it does not have a recovery school option.
The Governor’s Office announced legislation today: “In the governor’s proposal, persistently failing schools are defined as those scoring below 60 on the Georgia Department of Education’s accountability measure, the College and Career Performance Index (CCRPI), for three consecutive years. The Opportunity School District would take in no more than 20 schools per year, meaning it would govern no more than 100 at any given time. Schools would stay in the district for no less than five years but no more than 10 years.”
The administration did not testify about specific legislation during the State Capitol hearing, relying instead on building-the-case witnesses from two neighboring states — Louisiana and Tennessee — that have similar models. In Louisiana they are called Recovery Schools and in Tennessee they are called Achievement Schools. The intent is the same, to provide an alternative option to rescue failed schools. With alternatives come challenges and questions including facilities, funding, attendance zones, attracting high quality teaching and leadership talent and accountability. All of these will undoubtedly be addressed many times during the General Assembly’s consideration of Governor Deal’s proposal.
The final moments of the two-hour hearing might have been the most dramatic when Sam Rauschenberg, Deputy Director at the Governor’s Office of Student Achievement (GOSA), testified that millions of dollars spent in Race to the Top education federal grants does not appear to have made much difference at public schools where those millions were invested. The question he was asked and his answer are quoted at the bottom of this article. This exchange makes a compelling argument that spending money, more money, does not by itself work.
Here is a description of the House – Senate committee hearing discussion as it occurred. Note: the joint committee did not release an advance witness list. The hearing was held at the Coverdell Office Building across from the State Capitol. Watching online, the room seems packed to overflow, including senior policy advisers from the Governor’s Office.
1:10 – 1:45 p.m. — The first portion of the hearing has been devoted to witnesses from Louisiana who are discussing the state’s use of recovery school districts, especially since 2005 when Hurricane Katrina devastated public education facilities, specifically in New Orleans. The first witness is Paul Pastorek, former Louisiana school superintendent and considered a reformer in public education accountability. Recovery School Districts were in place in 2005 but the state moved to re-emphasize non-traditional models as it rebuilt the ravaged public education system. The second witness is Neerav Kingsland, chief executive officer at New Schools for New Orleans since May 2012. New Schools is frequently cited as an education success story.
1:45 p.m. — Former Tennessee commissioner of education Kevin Huffman is discussing the state’s “Achievement School Districts” which are an alternative to traditional K-12 public education classrooms. Charter schools are one part of this structure. Huffman talked about trying to “make a match” between what communities need and charter schools that best fit the needs. Huffman said one of the greatest constraints on growth is finding great leaders and teachers. Memphis is a target area for this education innovation. There currently are 16 Tennessee achievement schools. Huffman said, “The early signs are promising but I think it’s early to judge because we have so few schools. We look at New Orleans and that is what we want. We want the schools in Memphis to improve” similar to successes seen in Louisiana. Huffman resigned his commissioner’s appointment in January 2015.
2:00 p.m. — The next witness is Sam Rauschenberg, Deputy Director at the Georgia Governor’s Office of Student Achievement (GOSA). A native Georgian, Rauschenberg moved to New Orleans in 2007 after he graduated with honors from Georgia College. Rauschenberg taught math for three years at Joseph S. Clark High School in New Orleans. He described the experience as “a tremendous struggle” because many students could not perform at or anything near grade level. The school converted to a recovery school model several years ago; Rauschenberg said today overall academic performance at Joseph S. Clark High School has increased about 20 percent.
2:05 p.m. — Question Time from Senate and House members. At this point there has not been any presentation about Governor Deal’s proposed Opportunity School District. Committee members are asking questions to the Louisiana and Tennessee witnesses about accountability, how the states attracted quality instructional talent and whether charter schools were for-profit or non-profit models.
2:50 p.m. — Toward the end of the discussion Senator Donzella James asked a lengthy question. In part, she said, “Who is going to identify chronically failing schools, what’s the root cause of them and are we just taking money away from the public school system rather than putting more in it which seemed to be the reason that we were having the problems in the first place?” Her question was directed to Sam Rauschenberg. This was his response:
“I haven’t been in all the conversations about the bill but I will say our agency (GOSA) has been part of the evaluation work, the Race to the Top work, much of which was to turn around low-performing schools. The state received a significant infusion of money for low achieving schools as well as school improvement grants (from) the federal government. A lot of these schools got millions of dollars to do so and our analysis which is available on our website showed that only a few of those have made some gains but overall they have not made tremendous gains. The model that was chosen was a transformation model which had very limited changes in the overall structure of the schools relative to the other options but there was a significant infusion of money into those schools over a three-year period. I would go to those as examples of schools that were low-performing and had a lot of resources to answer that part of your question.”
3:00 p.m. — The meeting concluded. No next meeting was announced.
Mike Klein has written about Georgia K-12 public education since 2010. He held executive positions with CNN where he was Vice President of News Production, the Georgia Public Policy Foundation and Georgia Public Broadcasting.
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