Gov. Deal Wants State to Take Over, Privatize Struggling Schools; Democrats Offer Alternative
(APN) ATLANTA — One week after Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal, a Republican, unveiled a proposal to enable state takeovers and privatization of struggling schools, State Senate Democrats have put forth an alternative plan they say addresses the root causes of failure in the education system.
At a press conference on February 17, 2014, the Senate Democratic Caucus introduced the Unlocking the Promise Community Schools Act (SB 124).
“Here in Georgia, more than sixty percent of children who go to public schools are poor. This bill is a reaction to that,” Sen. Vincent Fort (D-Atlanta) said.
“A child who is hungry will not learn. A child who feels bad, who has dental problems or other kinds of problems will not learn. This bill is all about removing these impediments,” Sen. Fort said.
The legislation would create a grant program based on the Community Schools model, which has been implemented in several states including Ohio, Kentucky, and Oregon. Under this model, schools are transformed into community centers that offer an array of services tailored to the needs of each individual school.
For example, at Oyler School in Cincinnati, all grades K-12 are housed together, along with an Early Learning Center for infants and preschoolers, and dental and vision centers that serve students and their families. When the school day ends, Oyler stays open, offering classes for adults, and tutoring and mentoring for students provided by more than 400 volunteers from local businesses.
Programs like these are developed by teachers, parents, and administrators working together with the school district and partner organizations.
Deal’s plan, on the other hand, would create a state-run Opportunity School District to take over failing schools and auction them off to private operators.
The Opportunity School District proposal is based on Louisiana’s Recovery School District, which took over 110 New Orleans Schools from the Orleans Parish School Board in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.
Before Georgia lawmakers had a chance to review the details of the Governor’s plan last week, they were subjected to a presentation by two architects of the Recovery School District who are on a crusade to export their model nationwide.
At a joint hearing of the House and Senate Education Committees on February 11, 2014, lawmakers heard from Paul Pastorek, who oversaw the creation of the Recovery School District during his tenure as Louisiana’s Superintendent of Education.
“The operating theory was that we would remove restrictions and barriers and empower the new leaders of these schools,” Pastorek said.
What were those barriers?
“Local schools boards, collective bargaining agreements, and tenure,” he explained.
And the new leaders?
“We conducted [Requests For Proposals] and asked operators to come in and basically bid on the schools,” Pastorek said.
In other words, instead of principals, the schools had CEOs who won the right to take over schools through a corporate-style bidding process.
Pastorek did not mention that he laid off 7,000 teachers, the majority of whom were Black, and replaced them with mostly Teach For America (TFA) recruits, who were mostly White.
Nor did he mention that those laid-off teachers sued the State of Louisiana for wrongful termination and are owed one billion dollars, according to a lower court ruling, which the Supreme Court of Louisiana will review later this year.
House and Senate education committee members also heard from Neerav Kingsland, former CEO of New Schools for New Orleans, the nonprofit arm of the Recovery School District.
Kingsland said that philanthropy was a major factor in funding the reforms.
What he did not say is that the “philanthropists” who poured money into the Recovery School District were actually investors who have a stake in the lucrative business of corporate education reform.
One example is a firm called New Schools Venture Fund, which invested 1.5 million dollars in New Schools for New Orleans. Their board is made up of venture capitalists and education technology executives from companies like LeapFrog Enterprises, which sells tablets and other products to schools.
Last year, New Schools Venture Fund partnered with ReThink Education, another major education investment firm. ReThink Education’s advisory committee includes the CEO of Pearson, the education publishing giant that rakes in billions of dollars from textbook sales and test-taking materials.
Georgia State Professor Kristen Buras conducted a case study of the New Orleans public schools takeover, focusing on the profit-driven nature of the Recovery School District and its impact on marginalized communities.
“Educational reforms in New Orleans are not designed to respond to oppressed communities or to enhance public school performance, even if they are often couched in such language,” Buras writes in her new book, Charter Schools, Race, and Urban Space: Where the Market Meets Grassroots Resistance.
“Rather, this is a feeding frenzy, a revivified Reconstruction-era blueprint for how to capitalize on public education and line the pockets of entrepreneurs (and their black allies) who care less about working-class schoolchildren and their grandmothers and much more about obtaining public and private monies and an array of lucrative contracts,” Buras writes.
The Recovery School District’s proselytizers hail their grand experiment as having achieved miraculous results, though numerous studies have shed light on problems with their metrics.
Pastorek recently made several trips to Michigan to consult with Gov. Rick Snyder on adopting the model. The Detroit Press reported his trips were paid for by The Eli Broad Foundation, one of the biggest funders of the corporate education reform movement.
The Broad Foundation did not return a call to confirm whether they paid for Pastorek and Kingsland’s trip to Georgia.
Senate Democrats’ Community Schools model, on the other hand, has the support of teacher unions and generally focuses on building partnerships with local businesses and organizations, rather than far-flung start-ups and corporations seeking to make huge profits.
While critics have questioned the metrics bolstering claims of the model’s success, one of the stronger statistics to its credit shows that Kentucky climbed from 48th to 33rd in national education rankings after adopting a Community Schools model.
Sponsors of Georgia’s Community Schools bill say primary support would come from “community partners, either financially or through in-kind service delivery.”
Some federal funding, including Title I and School Improvement Grants, would also be available. The Senators also identified at least 80 million dollars in state funding that could be freed up by eliminating Georgia’s aviation fuel sales tax exemption, along with elimination of a tax credit for parents who send their children to private schools.
At the press conference, State Sen. Nan Orrock (D-Atlanta) emphasized the root cause of Georgia’s education woes is in the massive cuts that have shrunk school budgets.
“We have children crammed into classrooms because of the funding cuts from the State,” Sen. Orrock said. “We have teachers on furlough, and we have school systems unable to offer a 180-day academic year. In the face of those, is school takeovers the answer?”