February 6, 2017 10:00 AM
This week’s Courier Herald column:
When a loss comes suddenly, especially after a long series of victories, the blow can seem overwhelming. Cruel. Even Permanent.
Many an Atlantan can understand that feeling this week. We’re used to our sports teams becoming good when we didn’t necessarily expect it. Remaining good enough to change our expectations. Then, when everyone is finally paying attention, a crushing defeat.
We’re told there’s another season, but first we have to endure the off season. Quitting isn’t an option, and is the exact wrong approach to failure. And that’s all I have to say about sports this morning because this isn’t a column about a championship that wasn’t meant to be. This is about a new season of the Georgia legislature and renewed efforts to reform Georgia’s education system.
Governor Deal has an impressive record when it comes to education funding and reform. Despite PR from educator’s coalitions to the contrary, this is a Governor who has increased funding significantly for K-12 education, dedicating roughly half of all state tax revenue growth into education since the economic recovery began. He’s also the Governor that engineered the creation of the State Charter School Commission, after Georgia’s method of authorizing charter schools was found to be unconstitutional.
Along the way, he’s protected Georgia’s performance standards, revitalized technical education through expanded use of college and career academies, and modernized curriculum such as adding coding and programming as courses earned for foreign language credits.
It took a good bit of political capital for the Governor to mobilize super-majorities in the state legislature to put an amendment on the ballot November to create an Opportunity School District – a state run effort that would have taken control of up to 100 chronically failing schools in Georgia. The Governor also knew he was drawing on additional capital with some Georgia voters by vetoing bills for both carrying guns on college campuses and religious freedom legislation that didn’t have specific protections for Georgia’s LGBT citizens.
In the end, the vetoes probably didn’t factor into the margin of error. Voters in November voted 3 to 2 against the Opportunity School District. Some Republicans feared the power of taking over schools was a bridge too far. $5 Million of out of state teacher union money also convinced a good number of Democrats that OSD wasn’t the answer. It was the Governor’s first major defeat on legislation at the hands of Georgia’s voters.
The Governor knew he had already pushed the envelope with voters and legislators when he shelved his own reform commission’s recommendations for last year’s legislative session. It was, after all, an election year. With OSD somewhat controversial – and with the full knowledge that local boards of education are the largest employers in many Georgia counties – the Governor decided to wait. With OSD’s loss, the waiting has continued.
Education reform isn’t dead. Despite some public goading of education groups attempting to bait the Governor’s office into public threats of retribution, this is also a Governor that isn’t taking the bait. There isn’t a heavy handed reform bill coming from the Governor’s office to punish districts for opposing OSD. That has been an effective story line since November, but it’s not an effective way to Govern – especially for a Governor that still wants to get things done during his remaining 2 years.
Instead, the Governor is looking for a more collaborative approach with the state legislature. There are still failing schools, now with more than 80,000 Georgia students trapped with few alternatives. The “Plan B” – and possibly even a plan C & D – will come from the legislature. The Governor’s office will still have a keen interest, but efforts are being taken to ensure that any chasms between local boards and state legislator grow no wider.
Georgia still funds education based on a model adopted under Governor Joe Frank Harris in 1985. That was the year Ronald Reagan was sworn in for a second term. That was when both the Falcons and the Braves were playing in Atlanta Fulton County Stadium.
In the time Georgia has locked itself into funding education based on classes taught rather than students’ needs, Georgia has authorized and built both the Georgia Dome and Turner Field. Georgia’s antiquated funding formula has outlived them both. It’s time to take the wrecking ball to the “Quality Basic Education” formula as well.
The Governor’s Education Reform Commission recommended that funding of local districts be based on students’ needs. Georgia is one of only a handful of states that doesn’t currently recognize students living in poverty as a factor that indicates that district needs additional resources. That needs to change, immediately.
The defeat of the Opportunity School District amendment was clear. It does not mean the problems it was proposed to solve have gone away, or did not exist. It just means that in this new season, a different approach is needed to turn failure into winning. Quitting isn’t an option. It’s time for the state’s legislators to get back on the field, and rise up.