This Election Day, Georgia will decide whether the state’s constitution can “be amended to allow the state to intervene in chronically failing public schools in order to improve school performance?” Their answer will determine whether the Peach State will follow in the footsteps of Louisiana, Tennessee, Michigan, and Nevada, which established state-run schools without voter approval.
To some, the question may sound noble. But Carly Shaw, a middle school teacher for Georgia’s Fulton County Schools, knows better. She wants others to know better, too.
“The language on the ballot basically says the governor would have the right to take over any school that’s low performing,” says Shaw, who is a teacher and vice president of the Fulton County Association of Educators. “But, it doesn’t get to the meat of the matter of what this means.”
If history is any indication of what this could mean, Georgia will be among several states to fragment school authority, disenfranchise communities of color, and ignore parent and community concerns.
A Sleeping Giant
School takeovers are not a new concept. According to The Trentonian, New Jersey took control of Jersey City’s schools in 1989, and is considered “the first state to mount such a takeover.” The state returned some elements of control back to the city in 2007 and 2014. This year, it was announced that the city was expected to regain full control.
What is relatively new, or different, about the takeovers of today is states now can yank individual schools out of their local districts and place them in a state-managed district, which then typically turns them over to charter operators.
“It’s turning from retail privatization to whole sale privatization,” says Leigh Dingerson, a consultant for the Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University, a national policy research and reform-support organization. “Instead of privatizing one school at a time . . . they can take over a whole set of schools in one fell swoop.”
The first model of this kind comes from Louisiana.
In 2005, Hurricane Katrina awoke a sleeping giant: Act 9, a 2003 law that made way for the Recovery School District (RSD). The law gave authority to the state education department to pull low-performing schools out of local control and operate the school itself, or contract with a university or a charter operator.
While the law applied to the entire state, its focus was on New Orleans.
In 2004, one middle school in the city was put under RSD and designated to run as a charter school. Four more schools followed in 2005.
At the time, Dingerson described Act 9 as a “sleeper” that didn’t generate much attention. “But when the storm hit, I think the charter industry recognized Katrina as the way to seize control of virtually an entire district,” she says.
After the storm, Louisiana Governor, Kathleen Blanco, gutted the state’s charter school law, making it easier for charter expansion by, in part, removing a provision that required the conversion of a traditional public school to have faculty and parent approval.
The state’s legislature added fuel to the fire via passage of Act 35. The measure changed the performance score of a “failing” school to below the state average of 87.4. Any school that fell below that average was at risk of being taken over. School districts outside of New Orleans, however, were considered failing if the score fell below 60.
More than 100 New Orleans schools were moved to RSD under Act 35, and were soon converted to charters. The local school board was left with only 5 schools. Ultimately, the entire RSD-district would become charter run.
“The charter industry used legislation and policy to advance their privatization agenda,” says Dingerson, and any school takeover since then “is the direct descendent of the Recovery School District in Louisiana.”
Over time, the performance indicators in New Orleans would show disappointing results. The Advocate, the state’s daily newspaper, published a review of the RSD performance results by J. Celeste Lay, an associate professor of political science at Tulane University. She wrote: “By the state’s post-Katrina definition of a failing school, nine years into the experiment, nearly all of the schools in the RSD are ‘failing.’ Communities around the state that are grappling with their own public education challenges should look at New Orleans’ charter schools experience with skepticism.”
But it was too late. The giant was awake.
Topsy-Turvy in Tennessee
Many elected leaders and advocacy groups tout the importance of local control, which is rooted in the idea that those closest to the students (parents, teachers, school boards, community groups, and businesses) know what’s best for them and the school community.
With school takeovers, local input is virtually squashed, and decisions come from the top down.
Tennessee turned to a takeover model in 2010 and created the Achievement School District (ASD), targeting Memphis and Nashville. Academic performance in most of the ASD schools showed mixed results—and even some decline. Parent frustration was high.
Annenberg and the Southern Education Foundation (SEF), an advocacy group for equity in education, produced a report called “Investing in What Works: Community-Driven Strategies for Strong Public Schools.” The group’s report said many of the ASD initiatives created “bad will in the communities and schools that have been targeted by them.”
Media outlets have reported similar findings. Chalkbeat, an education news blog, captured the sentiment of one angry parent in 2014: “They took our schools. We did not give [them] away.”
Six years in, frustration remains. T.C. Weber is a parent and a prominent blogger in the Metro Nashville area. He is outspoken about the “failure” of ASD and what he now sees as manipulation of parents.
He points to Nashville Rise, an education reform organization that, according to its website, empowers parents. Weber, however, tells a different story.
“It’s a new trick,” he says, explaining that these types of groups recruit and train parents, who then recruit and train more parents who then end up with the same misguided politics.
“It’s sad,” he says. “Parents aren’t being heard. They’re being manipulated.”
They’re being misinformed, too.
In a June 20 post to his blog, Dad Gone Wild, Weber writes, “It’s this fear that these reform organizations play upon. They throw out stats . . .that [say] only 1 in 5 children in Nashville receive a quality education, without quantification. They paint a picture that gives parents the impression that their voice is important as they lead them down a preordained path. A path that leads to the dismantling of our public schools and turns control of them over to private interests.”
His post chronicles how charter proponents describe the school his children attend as lacking quality—a school that has a high population of English Language Learners (ELLs). Weber cautioned, “Charter proponents tell immigrant parents that the school is terrible, yet last year [the school] moved 67 kids off of ELL services. Double the number of [the previous] year. Does that sound like less than high-performing to you?”
Like many parents, educators don’t fare well in these situations either.
‘A Kiss of Death’
Neely’s Bend Middle School in Madison, Tenn. was taken over by the ASD, and is now in a charter transition. Brandon McFerren is a graduate of Tennessee State University. He holds a bachelor’s degree in English and is certified to teach. His goal is to obtain a doctorate in philosophy. Until he does, he says he’ll teach at Neely’s Bend.
The school environment was challenging in 2015. A charter operator was taking over the school one grade at a time. There were two administrations and little support given to educators.
“This was a new field to me,” says McFerren, “and I was figuring it out on my own.”
A couple of months into the school year, the first-year teacher was enjoying the work. He had developed a good system for his lesson plans and built a positive rapport with his students. They were “finally getting it,” he says.
But when December arrived, he was removed from his specialty, and told he needed to teach Response to Intervention math because the class had no teacher. That’s when the administration decided to evaluate him.
“I received low evaluation scores, which meant I wouldn’t be able to teach. I felt defeated,” he laments. His evaluation report noted he wasn’t “prepared” and was “too nice” to his students.
McFerren was given a “non-reelect.” Basically, he was fired.
Educators with a “non-reelect” on in their files means “you don’t get hired,” says Susan Dalton, a former social studies teacher in Sumner County, now a uniserv coordinator for the Metro Nashville Education Association (MNEA). “Other educators could resign from their teaching position, but that makes them ineligible for unemployment. It’s a kiss of death because neither option is good.”
Ultimately, McFerren's evaluation was overturned—after his local Association and some of its members went before the school board to get a reversal of the ineligible for rehire condition. But he still wants to see new teachers receive more support—especially when the district is trying to recruit more male teachers of color.
“While schools struggles to recruit teachers of color, nothing was done to invest and retain a rising star,” says Dalton. “You can’t put a number to the value of seeing young men of color teaching students of color.”
Annenberg’s Leigh Dingerson suggests parents and community members consider the ways charter expansion via school takeover is playing out in terms of race, and that they also look to places like Tennessee to see what’s happening to parents.
“Local parents are losing access to decision makers who are running their schools. They have no voice when the state takes control of a school and then they have no voice when the charter company comes to run their schools. It’s disenfranchising Black and Brown communities, exclusively,” she says.
A report from the Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools (“Out of Control: The Systematic Disenfranchisement of African-American and Latino Communities through School Takeovers”) supports the claim. It underscores that 97 percent of the students in the currently operating state-run districts are Black or Latino.
Connie Jackson, president of the Cobb County Education Association in Georgia believes this type of charter expansion is the “downfall of public education.”
“Many of these charter operators don’t think that every American deserves a great public education,” she says. “The for-profit charters that are fly-by-night come in to the lowest social economic and highest minority areas and tend to give them the bare minimum and have poor financial services.”
She adds, “We’ve seen them—the ones that fail are in high minority areas—and they just don’t work. Instead, they end up taking the money that they do have out of the community.”
Both Jackson and Fulton County’s Carly Shaw see the writing on the wall with Georgia’s constitutional amendment: school closures, student displacement, overcrowding, fired teachers. They’re fighting hard to push back.
Preparing for a Fight
If the Georgia constitutional amendment passes, it would create the “Opportunity School District (OSD).” Governor Nathan Deal would then have the authority to pick a superintendent who could enforce one of four interventions: direct management by the state, joint management by the OSD and local school board, conversion to a charter school, or closure.
It appears, however, the state has little intention of exploring the various intervention models. A July 2015 grant proposal from the Georgia Department of Education to the federal education department shows that it “anticipates a steady increase in charter schools with a large increase in the number of charter schools in the third grant year due to the creation of the Opportunity School District.”
Many of these charter operators don’t think that every American deserves a great public education. The for-profit charters that are fly-by-night come in to the lowest social economic and highest minority areas and tend to give them the bare minimum and have poor financial services” - Connie Jackson, President, Cobb County Education Association
Jackson and Shaw are among a growing group of concerned educators who are going into their respective areas to inform others.
While Cobb County doesn’t have any schools on the takeover list, it doesn’t mean they’re immune. Jackson has been out in full force, creating awareness and supporting her peers from Fulton County, which has 10 schools potentially eligible for takeover.
This summer, Jackson helped organize forums for the general public and worked with parent groups and civic organizations to garner more community support. School and church visits were also a part of the organizing effort.
“We’ve been getting the word out and putting a face on it,” says Jackson.
Getting the word out is a big issue, says Shaw. “So many people don’t know what this is about, and the problem is that reformers have tried this in three other states and it has not been effective.”
Instead of OSD, the two educators, along with the Georgia Association of Educators, promote locally based strategies backed by proven research. Annenberg and SEF released a new report last year--"Investing in What Works: Community-Driven Strategies for Strong Public Schools"--which makes a strong case for collaborative, grassroots efforts to help turn around struggling schools. The report called for quality early childhood education; collaborative and stable leadership; quality teaching; restorative practices and student-centered learning environments; a strong curriculum that is rigorous, rich, and culturally relevant; wraparound supports; deep parent-community-school ties; and investment, not divestment.
The report highlights the Cincinnati Public Schools as an example of home-grown partnerships can help to meet student and community needs. These partnerships have turned Cincinnati’s schools into community hubs, called “Community Learning Centers,” which might offer—depending on community need—aftercare, English language classes, health care services, or arts programs. The idea is for schools to serve the entire community: students, parents, and residents. Attendance and graduation rates have risen along with student learning.
Other positive examples of community schools are highlighted in “Community Schools: Transforming Struggling Schools into Thriving Schools,” which was produced by The Center for Popular Democracy, Coalition for Community Schools, and SEF. The trio champion six successful strategies: curricula that are engaging, culturally relevant, and challenging; high-quality teaching; wraparound services; positive discipline practices; authentic parent and community engagement; and inclusive school leadership.
The report showcases several schools that have experienced significant transformational changes, such as a Los Angeles high school that sends 99 percent of its students to college, and a Baltimore elementary school that had zero suspensions last year. Schools in Austin, Orlando, and Portland are thriving, too, through these model strategies.
“We can improve our schools,” says Jackson. “There are schools now that are getting themselves off the ‘failing’ list, but we need full funding, resources, and support to help us get it done—not the Opportunity School District.”