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Mar. 24 – UPDATED 3:20 p.m.-Governor’s bill to improve 'Failing Schools' passes in Senate; Goes back to House

By Lou Phelps, Savannah Business Journal

March 24, 2017 – Updated 3:20 p.m.-  Governor Nathan Deal’s continuing effort to wrest control of Georgia’s low-performing schools – those listed annually on his ‘Chronically Failing Schools List’ – an effort aimed at forcing school boards to invest in improvement, continues to work its way through the Georgia General Assembly. The bill is alive, but with amendments by various Senators appearing almost hourly.  If the amendments pass today, the bill will go back for the House.  But, there are only two final days next week – Tuesday and Thursday – before the session ends.

The Governor’s list excludes Alternative, Special Education, and Non-Traditional schools, and his list differs somewhat from what the Dept. of Education currently terms its ‘Priority and Focus List.’  The new legislation, termed "The First Priority Act," working its way through the Georgia House and Senate, clarifies that the Dept. of Education will define the lowest performing schools, and that the list of “failing schools” will be termed the “Turnaround Eligible Schools.”

The Governor’s list, released on Jan. 5, 2017, had Chatham County with 12 failing schools, up from 6 last year.  A link to that list can be found at http://bit.ly/2nQfH0Z.

The Dept. of Education releases its list every three years, as part of its Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) waiver, and “identifies schools which exhibit the greatest need for additional support,” they state.

Their “Priority Schools” are among the lowest five percent of Title I schools in terms of academic achievement. They also identify “Focus Schools,” those among the lowest 10 percent of Title I schools in terms of the achievement gap – both the size of the gap between the school’s bottom quartile of students and the state average, and the degree to which that gap is closing.  

Under Georgia’s renewed ESEA flexibility waiver, which was renewed back in 2015, the criteria for Priority and Focus Schools were fully aligned with the College and Career Ready Performance Index (CCRPI), allowing for a more transparent measure with which districts and schools were already familiar – all of which are aimed at comparing the performance of Georgia’s students to those across the U.S.  

“Identifying Priority and Focus schools allows us to offer targeted assistance where it is needed most,” State School Superintendent Richard Woods said back in 2015. 

But, Governor Deal managed to get a Constitutional Amendment through the General Assembly during the 2016 session, a bill that would have allowed the State to take over failing schools. That Amendment failed in November, with voters rejecting the loss of local control.  

So, the Governor has come back this year with a new approach: HB 388. The bill offers school districts professional consulting help to work on failing schools, and relies on their cooperation. But, if they don’t accept the help, there may be financial consequences in reduced State funding.  

What’s in HB 338 ?

The bill amends Title 20 and provides for a system of supports and assistance for the lowest-performing schools, provides for a Chief Turnaround Officer; provides for “turnaround coaches”;  and provides for grants to then implement improvements that the consultant and the school system agree upon. The lead sponsor is State Representative Kevin Tanner (pictured, at left, listening intently to current Senate floor debate.) 

But, it also includes provides for a comprehensive on-site evaluations and the development of an “intensive school improvement plan,” according to the bill’s language, which lets someone ‘under the hood,’ and that raises concerns with many schools boards who worry about the State taking away local control.

The bill also provides for an Education Turnaround Advisory Council and the creation of the Joint Study Committee on the Establishment of a State Accreditation Process.   And, it provides for removal of members of a local board of education if one-half or more of the schools in the local school system are turnaround eligible schools for five or more consecutive years.

The bill passed the Georgia House of Representatives with bipartisan support back on March 1.  On Monday, the Senate Education and Youth Committee passed it with amendments, moving the bill to the Senate Rules Committee and then to the floor.  But, more amendments continue to appear in the Senate.

Georgia laws have provided for the Department of Education to intervened where there are failing or low-performing schools, but the department has never exercised it’s full authority;  Governor Deal continues to push for action in this area. His Jan. 5 list had 153 schools in Georgia where students were performing at 60% or lower from where they were supposed to be. 

And, the State Dept. of Education has what are termed “flexibility” contracts with all but two of the State’s schools systems, contracts that control funding they receive.  The flexibility contracts allows school system waivers from state mandated criteria such as maximum class sizes and minimum number of annual school days.

School Boards seek those waivers to cut their budgets – to save money – versus raising local school board tax rates.

A last minute amendment filed Friday would allow the State Superintendent to hire the Chief Turnaround Office, versus their being appointed by the Governor. Superintendent Richard Woods, who is elected statewide by the voters, seeks to have the officer report to him, as well. 

“This bill is about local control in education, said Sen. Lindsey Tibbets. “It’s about working out problems; trying to find solutions, not taking over the institution.”  And, emphasizes the Governor's emphasis on literacy, he added. 

The Friday Afternoon Debate in the Senate

Senator Judson Hilll presented a School Voucher pilot program amendment to the main bill that he said was aimed at giving poor families more options, that they can't send their children to private schools, and they can't afford transportation to magnet schools. His 'Individual Student Education Account Act' amendment would be a state-led program that would test the program for approximately 4,000 students, he explained.  The Act would establish an individual student education account program. define responsibilities of parents, and is in essense a school voucher program. It includes funds for private tutoring, payment for books, tuition or fees for a nonpublic online learning program, and "would follow the money to the child for a school of their choice." 

His amending Act calls for the Dept. of Education to "deposit into an account an amount equivalent to the costs of the educational program that would have been provided ... if he or she were enrolled in and attending school in the resident school system less the statewide average local five mill share per student and less any administrative costs."  

Detractors to the bill stated that they believe this type of extensive program should not be presented as an amendment, and needs more vetting before being considered.  

"You do not address an issue like this on the fly," added Sen. Lindsey Tippens, Chairman of the Senate's Education and Youth Committee, who asked the body to vote against all amendments, but to support the main bill. On the School Voucher bill, he added, "There are about 160,000 students in private schools in Georgia," he said, and the State can't afford to pay for vouchers for them.  

And, Senator David Lucas, a Black Senator from District 26, which covers several counties east of Macon in Middle Georgia, also proposed a third amendment of the day to the bill, stating that the "Turnaround coaches shall have the authority to file an action in the Superior Court of the county in which the school is located to compel a parent that has consistently failed to enable their children to attend or otherwise take advantage of the services provided under this part to take all reasonable measures to enable his or her child to receive such services."  

Amendment 1, to give the State Supt. control over the Chief Turnaround Office, failed, 20 Yay to 34 No, a bi-partisan defeat.

Amendment 2, the School Vouchers amendment, failed 14 Yay to 38 No. 

Amendment 3, the amendment to take parents to court, failed 13 Yay to 32 No. 

The main bill passed 37 Yay to 18 No, receiving bi-partisan support. Both Sen. Ben Watson and Sen. Lester Jackson from Senator voted for the main bill. as did Sen. Bill Ligon from Glynn County. 

While the last minute Friday amendments all failed, the Senate's version was amended in Committee, and varies from the version the House passed on March 1.  It will move back to the House for resolution, possibly today.

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