By Georgia State Senator Curt Thompson
One thing that cannot be denied is that there is an achievement gap between wealthy schools and poor schools in the great state of Georgia; a gap largely caused by poverty, undernourishment, lack of adequate medical care, and lack of transportation. By tackling these fundamental issues and fixing the community first we can close the achievement gap. Studies have shown that the community school method currently being used in Austin, TX and Knoxville, TN closed the achievement gap within a year of implementation. Meanwhile, in New Orleans, a school takeover model not unlike what was passed in our state has done little to stem the tide. They fudge the numbers and then turn around and say; “look, we fixed the problem!” Lying does not fix the problem. Statistical dishonesty does not fix the problem. It wins elections and leaves students, families, and communities out in the cold. What we need are targeted methods specifically designed for individual communities to deal with their unique problems – a concept the Governor has refused to even take into consideration.
Consequently, on March 5th the Senate passed SB 133 or the “Opportunity School District” act to close the achievement gap. Unfortunately SB 133 does little to actually close the achievement gap. It provides for no additional funding to education, it consolidates too much power in the hands of the executive branch, and it does not get to the root of the problem within these struggling communities – poverty, undernourishment, lack of adequate medical care, and a lack of transportation. At the end of the day the education question is a question of funding and community participation. SB 133 provides for neither. My colleague, Senator Fort, has proposed another bill, SB 124, which gets to the core of the issue and does not consolidate obscene amounts of power in the hands of the Governor or his administration.
SB 133 authorizes the Governor to takeover schools he deems “failing” and assign an individual as superintendent, likely a strong backer or close friend, to bring the school more in line with the Governor’s standards. If the school fails to meet the standards within ten years it is shut down permanently, this is a frightening proposition as it does not outline how exactly the achievement gap will be closed. That question, of how to close the achievement gap, is largely left to the superintendent handpicked by the Governor. It is arbitrary, it is vague, and it is a blatant overreach. A similar solution is being utilized in Michigan and the results are just as bad as one would expect; flagrant abuse of power, cronyism, and the politicization of education. This position, the superintendent position, has been used to acquire political leverage or gain favor with potential allies or opponents in Michigan – who is to say it won’t be used in a similar manner here, in Georgia. The bill does not actually outline how drop-out rates, graduation rates, or test scores will be improved by assigning one of the Governor’s close friends to the position of superintendent. What this bill represents here, in Michigan, Louisiana, or Tennessee is a fundamental misunderstanding of why an achievement gap has emerged. This achievement gap exist because there are problems within the community that are making it difficult for students to succeed like their counterparts. Additionally, the Governor can easily pick the best of the worst schools to takeover and claim that there has been improvement in schools that were on the upswing prior to being taken over. The Governor’s proposal is tantamount to changing the captain on a sinking ship. It does not plug the holes on the ship. It does not stop the ship from sinking. It does not resolve the underlying problems plaguing the community.
Senator Fort’s SB 124, the community school bill, does get to the heart of the question. Studies have shown that the achievement gap between wealthier schools and poorer schools can be closed by providing students and the surrounding area with services to fit their basic needs. This method is currently being pioneered in both Knoxville, TN and Austin, TX. In Knoxville, TN the motto is to give children the opportunity to do the best that they can do and this is accomplished by providing after school peer mentoring opportunities for students, ESL opportunities for parents, and the full active participation of the community. The University of Tennessee’s medical school provides healthcare services, their law school provides pro bono mediation, and local high schools assist parents lacking high school diplomas in acquiring their GED. Now, the exact methods pioneered in Knoxville, TN may not work or be available in every struggling community in the state of Georgia. While the University of Tennessee’s Law school provides pro bono mediation that option may not work or even be needed for Morrow’s community. Maybe Morrow would benefit more from an expanded after school program with peer mentor-ship and support from nearby Universities.
Every community is different and therefore every solution will be unique, and the school takeover system envisioned by the Governor should most certainly be a mechanism of last resort rather than the only course of action available to struggling communities. Furthermore, until poverty, undernourishment, lack of healthcare, and lack of transportation are adequately dealt with students will continue to languish in these struggling communities. How can a student focus on grades and prepare for standardized test when there is no food in the cupboard or fridge, when the combined income of both parents barely make ends meet, and when a visit to the doctor breaks the bank? There is no way, no how, and simply taking over schools with even more of the same old top-down approach will not work for every community. More community involvement, more wrap-around services, meeting students and parent’s unique needs, more funding, and not lying to ourselves about what needs to be done to close the achievement gap is the better solution. Most importantly, don’t y’all find it a bit odd that a Republican Governor would overlook or oppose a solution that provides for the most local control?