Opportunity School District: Demand More

This week’s Courier Herald column:

A funny thing happened on the way to way to passing a constitutional amendment to fix Georgia’s failing schools. The NEA – the largest national teachers’ union – decided to send several million dollars to Georgia to kill the measure via a group called “Keep Georgia Schools Local”. Don’t let the irony be lost on you that a national union suddenly is appealing to local control. Also, don’t expect this position to last beyond November 8th.

Amendment One is one of the last remaining pieces of Governor Deal’s education reforms left to be implemented. A statewide charter school system was established by amendment in 2012. One and a half billion dollars have been added to education spending at the state level in the last four years. The Opportunity School District authorization and reform of Georgia’s Quality Basic Education funding formula are the two major remaining items.

And yet, if you listen to the opposition, Governor Deal has been starving the education establishment of it’s only stated goal: More.

When education reforms are discussed, those designed to protect the bureaucracy and status quo spring into action. Teachers have a tough, sometimes seemingly impossible job. Those wishing to protect their turf (and the upper ends of the educrat career ladder) know this. Thus most debates if framed from the NEA’s side will claim that the problem is that funding has been starved, with some chutzpah added that any discussion of accountability or performance metrics is an assault on hard working teachers.

The debate over amendment one has added a level of misdirection. The opposition has planted the seed that the Governor has a sinister motive for additional power and even personal profit.

This is a governor that has embraced education reform and criminal justice reform as his two main legacy items. Criminal justice reform has halted the growth and expansion of Georgia’s private prison industry. A governor that was designing policy based on the patronage system could have easily stroked Georgia’s “tough on crime” itch, and increased rather than curtailed the power of this lobbying group.

A governor that designed policy for profit wouldn’t have built the rainy day fund from having 3 days cash on hand the day he entered office to $2 Billion cash on hand today. $2 Billion can buy a lot of patronage.

A Governor that only wanted to increase the favors coming from the business community wouldn’t be the wet blanked thrown over casino expansion plans, but would instead be cheering an amendment next week for legal gaming operations in Georgia. This would have allowed competing casino interests to show their gratitude during his final two years in office as winners and losers are chosen.

Unofficial talking points from opponents have tales of the Governor and legislators being whisked away on private jets for junkets to New Orleans to see schools that the Opportunity School District was modeled on. I was on the trip the Governor took to Louisiana. He flew Delta and sat across the wing from me in coach. In fact, he sat in a middle seat, giving first lady Sandra Deal the window seat. Our Governor, in coach.

We have a Governor that has demonstrated he knows that education and criminal activity are inversely linked. Children who fail to receive a proper education are robbed of future economic opportunity. Educators are often the ones making this point when demanding “more”. They get a bit flustered when this argument is not only accepted, but policies are designed to fix this problem that contain both change and accountability.

Amendment one isn’t about power. It’s about accountability.

Half of the state budget goes into education. Failing schools are the calling card for the education establishment to always come back and ask for “more”.

Georgia’s schools have been given more. In addition to the increased spending over the past four years, Georgia’s local districts get SIG and Race to the Top funds specifically targeted at failing schools. But where does “more” actually go?

Two years ago I sat through a presentation about one of Georgia’s worst performing school clusters. It’s in a high crime, poverty stricken area of an otherwise wealthy county. Countywide, the schools are good – with this school cluster a noted exception.

The average experience level of teachers in the failing cluster was 18 months. A high percentage of positions at the beginning of each year were filled with long-term substitute teachers. Experienced teachers took better jobs where students were easier to teach.

Georgia’s teacher pay scale compensates based on experience and education level for classroom teachers, with administrators topping out the pay scale. Every time “more” is added, the new money goes as an equal percentage raise across the board. Thus, the better paid teachers in the non-failing schools and administrators get the vast majority of the “more”. Very little trickles down to the failing schools.

That works well if you’re a teachers’ union. The problem is never fixed, so you can always demand “more”. “More” is then given as a reward for service to the experienced teachers in good schools, and only the futures of the most vulnerable students must be sacrificed for this exercise to be repeated every budget cycle. More begets more.

The Opportunity School District isn’t an exercise from a power hungry governor. It’s a chance to hold local districts accountable for the investments state taxpayers are making in their communities.

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