After the sound defeat of the Opportunity School District (the Georgia Constitutional amendment to allow the state to take over failing schools) in this past November’s referendum, Governor Nathan Deal is going to have an uphill battle when it comes to his education agenda. But unlike many of his critics, I’m probably a bit more hopeful that he will approach this legislative session with renewed insight.

I had not originally been against the idea of the Opportunity School District; but upon further scrutiny, I felt that the amendment did not outline a sufficient plan for success for struggling schools. I (along with 60% of other voters – Democrat and Republican alike) voted “No” on this amendment. However, Governor Deal has re-committed to addressing his education priorities during the last two years of his second term.

The major priorities include:

  1. Increasing flexibility regarding school choice
  2. Revising the school funding formula
  3. Increasing state oversight of public schools

In this article, I want to take a look at these three focus areas and offer some recommendations of my own.

Priority 1: Increasing flexibility regarding school choice

Currently, our state has almost 30 state-approved charter schools and about 85 district-approved charter schools (not including 107 charter schools that operate within a charter system). This obviously provides some level of “choice” for families. However, in addition to this, in 2009, Governor Sonny Perdue passed legislation that established the following:

[P]arents of K-12 public school students in Georgia now have the option to enroll their child in any school within the local school district in which they now reside. The new law requires, among other things, that each school district establish a universal, streamlined process to manage such transfers by July 1, 2009.

…Students eligible for transfer under the unsafe school choice option (USCO) and students in Needs Improvement (NI) schools that must offer public school choice under No Child Left Behind, must get first priority for available seats at those schools in the district that are not in needs improvement.

 (Read more here.)

Since the ability to transfer already exists in districts, I am wondering what exactly Governor Deal will propose in order to increase this flexibility (is it vouchers, as some suggest?). As the law stands, families can only apply to schools that have capacity. And the school district does not provide transportation.

This type of legislation to increase flexibility – while in some ways beneficial – has many additional costs. The lowest performing schools end up losing their most motivated, financially stable families. (This also is one of the critiques of charter schools: it becomes a “brain drain” on these struggling schools.) This increased flexibility does not address the children “left behind” in these low-performing schools.

In addition to this, many families who struggle financially do not own a car, so providing transportation to another school becomes an impossibility. Furthermore, for families that are headed by a single parent, the odyssey of driving kids to a school miles across town often becomes another insurmountable challenge. I am a wife and mother of two young girls. Even with our girls’ school being right around the corner, and even with a husband assisting with transportation (and getting the girls ready, etc.), it is still a bit difficult to get the kids to school and back every day.

Lastly, in school districts that only have one high school, one middle school, and a couple elementary schools, this initiative will be meaningless. We need to spend our time coming up with innovative ideas that will impact the most children.

Unless this increased flexibility addresses the transportation issue (with additional funding, school buses, drivers), the only beneficiaries of this policy will be middle- to upper-income families in urban school districts who have the time and the means to drive their children to school and extra-curricular activities.

If the governor wants to increase flexibility to help students in low-performing schools, then we need to be willing to pay for the associated financial costs (which, I believe, will still be insufficient to address the problems at these schools).

Priority 2: Revising the school funding formula

School needs were very different back in 1985, when the original QBE (Quality Basic Education) Formula was created to fund schools. With the advent of new technology, more schools, and more students living in poverty, school districts have much greater needs financially. I am glad that Governor Deal created the Education Reform Commission to provide recommendations for adjustments to QBE. Overall, I agree with many of the recommendations, but I also believe we might be able to do more to address school districts’ needs.

We also need to be mindful that with a new president taking office in less than two weeks, federal funding may change significantly. This will affect our state budget, including the budget for education (and transit and transportation and parks, etc.). I will be posting a full write-up on the recommendations from the ERC in just a couple of days.

But for the time being, I think Mark A. Elgart of AdvancED summed it up nicely in this AJC opinion piece:

To change low-performing schools across Georgia, we need to have the state and districts do a better job of addressing how resources are allocated.* Today, at best, school funding provides roughly equal resources to address vastly unequal needs. More equitable public funding on its own will not solve the problem. No school—or governmental entity—has the resources to singlehandedly address all the challenges that poverty brings to the equation of helping young people learn. (*emphasis added)

Priority 3: Increasing State Oversight of Public Schools

On December 5, weeks after the defeat of the OSD, “House Education Committee Chairman Brooks Coleman said there [would] be legislation outlining a ‘six-step’ plan to give the state more power to address the schools.”

Governor Deal has bolstered his position – that our failing schools need state intervention – by appealing to the fact that local school boards, when given $300 million last year to increase teacher pay by 3%, did not necessarily use the money for teacher pay raises. Because of this failure to allocate this money to teachers when given the flexibility, Governor Deal’s spokesperson Jen Talaber Ryan said, “[T]he governor will mandate that school systems give teachers the raises the state promises to provide in the future.” I guess the governor is following through on this promise, as he just announced a 2% raise to the base pay for teachers. (See more from the recording of the governor’s State of the State Address.)

I don’t think that the governor will hear too much grumbling about that.

Not only should the new formula raise the base pay schedule, but the budget should account for an annual “cost-of-living” wage increase for teachers.

A less popular example of how Governor Deal has considered using the “increased state oversight” is to potentially prevent teachers from using payroll deductions to join professional organizations (like PAGE and GAE – essentially Georgia’s teachers’ unions). This may be something worth examining, but I feel that perhaps our money-saving energy could be better spent elsewhere.

If the state wants to intervene, I would support these types of initiatives:

  1. The governor and the state board of education should spend more time and energy on intervening in districts (as they have already done in DeKalb and Dooly counties) where there are situations like fraud, corruption, and teacher turnover, and where the local school board and superintendent are unable to address these.
  1. The state should intervene with funding when they see districts unable to pay for their school buildings and technology and teachers and athletic programs and arts programs. Perhaps the state could bring financial assistance to these school districts after verifying true financial deficits?
  1. The state should begin a more comprehensive audit of school district budgets, as there are many districts in the state that are quite top-heavy with administrative personnel who aren’t adding measurable value to the lives of children.

    While I am quite liberal in many ways, I agree with conservatives who criticize the bureaucratic nature of government institutions, especially school districts. The audit shouldn’t simply provide information (as some school district audits); it should have teeth. The GDOE should be able to identify positions and funding allocations that are just unnecessary. (Perhaps the audit could be done by an outside agency that then makes recommendations that are then implemented by the GDOE?)

One thing is certain: it’s going to be an interesting legislative session here in Georgia. While I disagree with much of Governor Deal’s political agenda (such as his stance on immigration), I don’t believe he is a partisan hack.

I especially appreciated his veto of the campus carry bill last year, his support for increased transportation funding (including new taxes), his improvements to the juvenile justice system, and the increased funding of the education system. I hope that Governor Deal brings with him a similarly nuanced view on education that takes seriously the concerns of teachers, parents, and students.