Teachers Unions Fight to Save Georgia’s ‘Dropout Factories’

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Voters in Atlanta, March 1.
Voters in Atlanta, March 1. PHOTO: ALAMY STOCK PHOTO

Atlanta

The old saying that the states are the laboratories of American democracy certainly holds true for public education. On Tuesday, Georgia voters will consider a proposed constitutional amendment designed to rescue thousands of students from failing schools.

If passed, it would create a new statewide Opportunity School District. Struggling schools that receive an “F” grade for three consecutive years could be transferred to the new district, which could then make changes, convert them to charter schools or close them.

This isn’t so much an experiment as a replication. Georgia’s plan is modeled in part after Louisiana’s Recovery School District, which spurred remarkable gains in student achievement after Hurricane Katrina. It also resembles Tennessee’s Achievement School District, which the legislature created in 2010.

That is what worries America’s education establishment. Teachers unions do not want this model of school reform to spread further. As of Nov. 1, campaign disclosures show, the National Education Association alone has poured $4.7 million into opposing Georgia’s amendment. For the most part the unions are making a conservative pitch: They argue that the Opportunity School District would create a new, unaccountable state bureaucracy that would take schools out of local control.

It’s the same case the unions made in 2012. The Georgia ballot then included a constitutional amendment allowing the state to create charter schools—a workaround if local education boards didn’t want them. That measure passed easily, 59% to 41%, and opponents’ dire predictions haven’t come to fruition. But the union effort this year is better funded, and opinion polls indicate that the Opportunity School District won’t pass nearly as comfortably. Balloting is expected to be close.

Voters who haven’t yet made up their minds ought to look hard at Louisiana’s example. Before Katrina, Democrats had already created the Recovery School District, but it had been barely used. In the crisis after the hurricane, officials transferred New Orleans’s 107 lowest-performing schools to its management. Only 16 citywide were left in the hands of the local board.

Some schools in the recovery district were closed. Over time, all of the rest were converted to charters. Families could choose which schools their children attended. Teachers and principals were given unprecedented control over their curricula, budgets and personnel.

“We hired some talented individuals. We implemented an academic model that was very strong,” says Jamar McKneely, a former teacher who is now the CEO of Inspire NOLA, which manages three charters. “In the old system, we couldn’t do that, because we had to deal with district mandates that honestly didn’t lead to academic gains for our students.”

The results have been dramatic: New Orleans’s high-school-graduation rate leapt by 21 percentage points, to 75%, between 2004 and 2015. Students in the city improved their average ACT score by almost two points, to 18.8 from 17, over a decade. College enrollment was 63% in 2015, up from 37% in 2004.

Critics claim that this success came only because Katrina drove many poor families and minorities out of New Orleans. The demographics, however, are little changed. Between 2004 and 2014, the percentage of black students dropped slightly, to 87% from 93%. But the share of students considered “economically disadvantaged” rose to 84% from 77%. Moreover, the recovery district teaches a higher proportion of children with disabilities, 13%, than the city or state as whole. The gains didn’t come from cherry-picking the best students.

Seeing sustained success, the state legislature voted this year to return all of New Orleans’s schools back to the local board, while maintaining their autonomy. A fair-minded observer would conclude that the recovery district helped break a cycle of failure. “We often ask ourselves, if it were your child, what would you want to do?” says Patrick Dobard, the district’s superintendent. “Stay on a perpetual hamster wheel, or get off the perpetual hamster wheel and hold people accountable for bringing change?”

After watching this from afar, Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal, a Republican, made a campaign promise in 2014: If re-elected, he would seek to bring the same model here. He pushed an amendment for the new district through the General Assembly, securing the two-thirds majorities needed to place it on the ballot.

Today, Georgia deems 127 of its schools, serving almost 68,000 students, chronically failing. Many students attend only failing schools from kindergarten through high school. “I had a child that actually graduated from one of the schools on the list,” says Valencia Stovall, a Democratic state representative who voted for the measure. “For me, I saw the whole gamut of what happens when students are stuck in those schools. . . . When you have a nonresponsive school board, like we had, it makes parents and even teachers angry.”

That’s where the “local control” argument falls apart. What is more local than a charter school, with teachers and parents crafting solutions for their unique challenges? Which is closer to students: A charter serving a few hundred, or a city board of education responsible for tens of thousands of kids?

Georgia’s economic future—and America’s more broadly—depends on turning around “dropout factories” in cities like Atlanta, Savannah and Augusta. But what worries the teachers unions is that a good idea might spread—from Louisiana, to Georgia, to a dozen other states that are serious about fixing failing schools.

Mr. Wingfield is a columnist for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

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