The Buckhead Council of Neighborhoods heard from the architect of the proposed Opportunity School District (OSD) as well as opponents of the plan during its Sept. 8 meeting.
Voters will decide whether to create the OSD, which requires a constitutional amendment to takeover chronically failing public schools statewide, by referendum on Nov. 8.
Erin Hames, credited with creating the plan while she was Deputy Chief of Staff for Policy and Legislative Affairs for Gov. Nathan Deal, outlined the details of the OSD and why it could help thousands of students in underperforming schools.
The OSD would create a new school district that would have its own superintendent appointed by the governor. Schools that have consistently fallen below 60 on the state accountability system for three consecutive years could be brought into the OSD.
The accountability system measures every school on student achievement, growth and progress, and whether the school is closing the gap between the lowest performing students and the state average. Schools are then given a score of 0 to 100.
Hames said there are currently 127 schools that meet the criteria for OSD, with 22 of those being in the Atlanta Public Schools (APS) district. No more than 20 schools in any given year can be taken over by the state and the OSD is capped at having 100 schools.
Hames said the OSD was modeled on similar reforms created by Louisiana and Tennessee. All of New Orleans’ public schools were taken over by the state after Hurricane Katrina and converted to charter schools, she said.
“The improvements made in New Orleans are incredible,” Hames said. “An NPR [National Public Radio] study showed it’s the largest and fastest turnaround in the nation’s history, with graduation rates increasing by 19 percent.”
Under Georgia’s OSD, the state would have four options for underperforming schools: a full takeover; shared operation with a school’s local district; conversion to charter school; and, as a last resort, closing the school.
Former APS Board of Education member Cecily Harsch-Kinnane, an opponent of the OSD, said she believed the plan was well-intentioned, but was unnecessary. Preferring the term “chronically struggling” schools, she said the Georgia Department of Education already has the power to help troubled schools and questioned why a constitutional amendment was necessary.
Harsch-Kinnane also refuted the successes of Louisiana’s reform, stating that statistics show that New Orleans now has a high number of dropouts and that ACT scores were so low that kids can’t go to college. “As a model, I wouldn’t say that Louisiana’s plan has been a raging success,” she commented.
Another opponent, Michelle Constantinides, said the OSD plan failed to address issues within the community where a failing school is located. “Are their medical needs? Are the kids coming to school hungry? Are they rested? I wish the governor would look at these issues as well,” she said. “There’s one school in APS where 52 languages are spoken. How is that addressed?”
Harsch-Kinnane agreed, stating that a school cannot be fixed without fixing the community. “There needs to be a focus on health, housing, psychological issues and public safety,” she said.
Current APS Board of Education member Nancy Meister said the district had been working hard alongside Superintendent Meria Carstarphen to turnaround the 22 failing schools.
“We are trying to be proactive so we don’t became part of OSD should it happen,” Meister said. “We have targeted our lowest performing schools, partnered with outside resources, and took $23 million out of this year’s budget to turn these schools around so we are not on the list.”
APS Board of Education chair Courtney English said the district was “locked like a laser on what’s best for the kids.”
“We have a turnaround plan in place and we’re going to be successful,” English said.