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State school district still needs work
Claire SuggsHD
Claire Suggs, is senior education policy analyst with the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute. - photo by Photo provided.

Editor’s note: The Opportunity School District legislation was approved by the House on Wednesday, but with some differences from the Senate version. So now a conference committee will have to work out the differences before it goes to the governor. Suggs wrote this as a blog before House passage. And her issues may have to be weighed by voters before it appears on ballots in November 2016 as a constitutional amendment.

Gov. Nathan Deal’s proposal to create a statewide Opportunity School District to take over persistently low-performing schools could pass out of the Georgia house and be sent for the governor’s signature as soon as this week.
This train needs to slow down to give lawmakers time to add better provisions for transparency, accountability and parental involvement to make the plan better fit students’ needs.
Monday, members of the House Education Committee approved Senate Bill 133 as well as Senate Resolution 287, which contains the constitutional amendment that gives the state the authority to assume control of local schools.
Lawmakers started tinkering with SB 133 almost as soon as it was introduced. The bill now outlines overarching strategies OSD schools must use to address discipline issues and identify and respond to students’ instructional needs. It allows waivers from state regulation for schools eligible or likely candidates for takeover by the opportunity district to give flexibility to design and implement innovative reforms. The changes also increased Opportunity District disclosure requirements.
Yet the concerns we outlined in our analysis of SB 133 earlier this month persist. This approach to improving schools is modeled on efforts in Louisiana and Tennessee. Policymakers, philanthropists and the media are intrigued by these efforts. But results from these two states are uneven and it is unclear what the most influential reasons are for changed student-test scores. Possibilities include increased funding, better facilities, different teacher workforce, charters or parental choice.
Georgia lawmakers still can take time to heed the recommendations in our earlier analysis:
• Restrict the number of schools taken over by the Opportunity District in its first five years to fewer than the 20 schools-per-year threshold currently proposed
• Design, fund and implement a rigorous analysis of the effects of the reform
• Increase transparency
• Require the OSD to publish findings of the evaluations of qualifying schools selected for takeover
• Include key information on students (e.g. student suspension and transfer rates), teachers (e.g. teacher turnover, experience) and leaders (e.g. turnover, training) in the OSD superintendent’s annual report to the General Assembly
• Give parents a greater voice
• If a majority of local parents disagree with the OSD superintendent’s selected intervention, allow an appeal to the state board of education
• Require governing boards of charters to reserve a seat for a parent
The State Charter School Commission also should publicly report its selection criteria for each charter or education management organization selected when takeover schools are converted to charters.
Lawmakers seem poised to choose this path in hopes of giving many of Georgia’s students a better chance at success. They still can better align it with needs of students and parents and add in a rigorous evaluation mechanism. It is important to not miss this opportunity to make this experiment part of a more comprehensive examination of ways to assess and improve teaching and learning in schools across the state.

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