Ga. advances bill to assist low-performing schools

The Southerner

By Mark Winokur

After a failed attempt in November to pass the Opportunity School District (OSD), which would have empowered the state to take over schools labeled failing based on test scores and other factors, Georgia lawmakers have proposed a new program aimed to improve Georgia’s lowest-performing schools.

Drafted under HB 338, the First Priority Act is a milder legislation that places emphasis on collaborating with schools in need of assistance.

“I strongly opposed OSD for taking power away from local schools and concentrating power in the hands of the governor without any accountability or investment in our students,” Rep. Stacey Abrams, D-Atlanta, said in a statement. “HB 338 is not OSD. While the legislation is imperfect, this bill is a necessary first step towards improving public schools in Georgia.”

The bill was introduced in the House of Representatives on Feb. 10 and passed on Mar. 1. The bill passed in the Senate on Mar. 24 and is currently awaiting the governor’s signature to become law.

Sponsored by Rep. Kevin Tanner, R-9th District, the First Priority Act would create the position of a Chief Turnaround Officer (CTO) to oversee and provide resources for low-performing schools. Rather than answering directly to the governor, the CTO would work with the Georgia Department of Education and report to the State Board of Education.

“One of the things we like about HB 338 is that it is written in good faith for however [the CTO] is selected and put in place,” said Craig Harper, Director of Communications for the Professional Association of Georgia Educators (PAGE). “They are supposed to cooperate and partner with the school and the school district to try to really determine what is going on with student performance. They have to take into account what is going on in the community outside of the school environment that may contribute to that performance.”

The legislation will utilize the federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) to determine which schools are considered low-performing. Implementation of ESSA will restructure the state’s accountability system, including the College and Career Ready Performance Index (CCRPI).

Schools ranked in the lowest 5 percent under ESSA may be considered eligible for takeover by the CTO and would be given three years to implement turnaround plans before being subject to interventions. These would include relocation to a successful district, hiring new faculty, or transferring the school to a non-profit charter system.

Advocates of the bill hold that the First Priority Act has corrected shortcomings of the OSD legislation by paying attention to the underlying issues that contribute to school performance.

“I am surprised that we even have a bill that says the things this says because it does go into poverty, health care, wraparound services, dental care [and] single parenting,” said Sen. Elena Parent, D-Atlanta at the Council of Intown Neighborhoods and Schools Education Legislation Round-Up meeting. “I feel a tremendous sense of victory that they have a piece of paper that we’re talking about that specifically discusses those things because that certainly was not the tune they were singing a mere two years ago.”

While there was initially no discussion of funding for the bill, on Mar. 22, the Georgia House of Representatives and the Senate adopted a new budget proposal that would allocate $1 million annually to assist low-performing schools to facilitate implementation of the First Priority Act. However, advocates hold that further measures will be required to ensure that the turnaround efforts are adequately financed.

“It certainly helps to at least understand that the statewide staff is going to be provided for, but intervention is expensive, especially the kind of interventions that we believe are going to be needed,” Harper said. “It’s just going to take a lot more money than this to do the job appropriately.”

Another source of concern is the circumstances under which a school may be captured. Some teachers believe that the metrics used to identify the school performance may still be inadequate. For example, there is concern that the CCRPI may fail to recognize growth in student achievement when there is a greater gap in performance that must be covered.

“If you’re moving kids who were at a second grade reading level to a fifth or sixth grade reading level, when they’re supposed to be on a seventh grade reading level, that’s still an enormous amount of growth, but that doesn’t meet the criteria that the CCRPI measures,” Grady English teacher Lisa Willoughby said.

Atlanta Public Schools board members are confident the district will respond effectively to state legislation in order to ensure that the needs of its students are met and no government intervention is necessary.

“We have always been focused on making sure that we are doing the right thing,” said Cynthia Briscoe Brown, an at-large member of the APS school board. “Incidentally, that also helps us defeat whatever moving target it is that they’re using at the state today to measure our schools.”