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This piece is co-published with The Nation.
Melissa Ladd never imagined she would sue the Governor of Georgia. The fifth-grade public school teacher from Coweta County describes herself as a conservative Republican who agrees with Governor Nathan Deal on most issues. But now Deal is pushing a plan to wrest control of "failing" schools across the state from their local boards of education using a model based on Louisiana's Recovery School District (RSD), which turned a majority of the public schools in New Orleans to charters.
"It's going to hurt the kids that Nathan Deal promises it will help, kids without resources," Ladd said of the plan, which appears on Georgia's 2016 ballot as Amendment One. If passed, the measure would amend the state's constitution to allow for the creation of a state-run "Opportunity School District" (OSD), helmed by a Governor appointee. This person would have the unilateral power to take over 20 "failing" public schools per year and either close, directly operate, co-operate with school boards, or turn them over to charter operators.
The state of Georgia has made it clear they intend to pursue the charter option. A recent Georgia Department of Education (GaDOE) grant application seeking federal funding for charter schools bluntly stated that the OSD, "aims to take 20 of the lowest performing traditional public schools and make them charter schools." It added that the Department has a plan to "attract education service providers," referring to the franchise-like charter management companies that typically operate for profit.
Ladd saw first-hand what for-profit charter management looked like when the state authorized a charter school in the district where she teaches. From high teacher turnover stemming from miserable pay, to pedagogy that's "scripted," to white flight that has drained her school of resources, Ladd says the charter company that operates the school is little more than a "money-maker" that's deepening educational disparity in the district. She also says the language of Amendment One—it cheerfully proposes to "fix failing schools through increasing community involvement"—deceives voters and obscures the real impact of the measure. It was on those grounds that she decided to sue the governor and other state officials.
Ladd is joined by two other plaintiffs––a parent and a minister––in her lawsuit, which will be heard in court after the election and could nullify the vote. But it might be opposition from outside of the courts that stops Amendment One. Keep Georgia Schools Local, a broad coalition of parents, teachers, and education activists––whose collaboration cuts across race, class, and party lines––has come together to fight the measure. They say the plan would import a model that has failed students and enriched private interests in New Orleans and elsewhere, all while using local resources without local input. And though they're up against some of the biggest names in education reform, they might just win.
While there's a decade-worth of documentation outlining the perilous impacts of Louisiana's RSD––from gutting teacher's rights to creating a feeding frenzy for consultants, education entrepreneurs, and other opportunists to capitalize on public education, with negligible academic results––there has been scant attention focused on how the takeover district model has spread in recent years. Several of the RSD's architects have traveled the country, proselytizing the "New Orleans miracle" to state legislators. Tennessee and Michigan adopted the model in 2010 and 2011 respectively, and Nevada and North Carolina followed suit more recently.
Georgia has been on this path since 2008, when lawmakers created a State Charter School Commission that could overrule local school boards to approve new charter schools. The Commission was controversial, and the fight that ensued from its inception set the stage for the current OSD battle.
Several school boards challenged the Commission with a lawsuit, claiming that under the Georgia Constitution the state did not have the standing to manage local schools, establish an independent district, or direct local dollars to Commission-approved schools––all things that the Commission was, in effect, doing. The state Supreme Court decided in their favor in 2011, but pro-charter legislators immediately sought to undermine the ruling by creating a constitutional amendment that would allow the Commission to run an independent school district using state and federal education dollars. In Georgia, Constitutional amendments must pass both the House and Senate with support from two-thirds of their membership, and then a majority of voters must approve it as well. Opponents of the amendment, which appeared on the 2012 ballot, said the Commission set a low bar for charter authorization and was rife with conflicts of interest. The former head of the Commission, for example, left it to open a pro-charter education consulting firm. Despite these objections, however, voters approved the amendment, thanks in part to an influx of campaign cash from education reform heavy hitters—WalMart heir Alice Walton gave $600,000––as well as lesser known Wall Street financiers. The Georgia Chapter of StudentsFirst, the lobbying outfit founded by Michelle Rhee, cut its teeth managing the $2.3 million pro-charter campaign, to which StudentsFirst contributed $250,000.
While the battle raged around the question of the State Charter Schools Commission in 2012, proponents of Louisiana's RSD were touting their takeover district model to state officials across the country who were seeking funding from the Obama administration's Race To The Top program, which requires states to take action on their lowest performing schools. The Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation, a major supporter of market-driven education reform, paid Paul Pastorek, former superintendent of the RSD, to consult with Michigan Governor Rick Snyder. Together they created a takeover district that subsumed 15 Detroit schools in 2012. That same year, Tennessee pulled its first cohort of schools into a state takeover district it had launched in 2010. (Nashville school board members are now urging Georgia voters to reject the OSD, calling their state's takeover district an "unmitigated disaster.") Last year, the Broad Foundation brought Pastorek on as a co-executive director with the express purpose of "pushing for more states to follow the lead of Louisiana and Tennessee."
In Georgia, the 2012 amendment afforded state officials an unprecedented opportunity to directly privatize public education, but it left out one coveted ingredient: local funding. Aware of this "shortcoming," Governor Deal quickly moved to change things. During his 2014 re-election campaign, Deal made an appearance with then-Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal and announced his interest in replicating the RSD in Georgia. Shortly after winning re-election, his staff began courting select Democrats they hoped would support a resolution to put the OSD on the 2016 ballot, along with a bill spelling out exactly what the OSD would do: Offer up those local tax dollars to state officials and the charter operators of their choice. It also would mandate that, upon a school's takeover, the local school board relinquishes the building and everything inside to the OSD, but continues to pay for facility upkeep.
The bill was crafted by Deal's deputy chief of staff for policy, Erin Hames, hand-in-hand with StudentsFirst's policy director, Hamida Labi. StudentsFirst also paid for trips for legislators to visit RSD schools in New Orleans and state takeover schools in Tennessee.
In February 2015, Pastorek made a presentation at a joint House and Senate Education Committee meeting, where he extolled the virtues of Louisiana's RSD. The OSD bill was officially introduced a week later and quickly passed out of the Senate. The heat turned up in the House, though, with critics on both sides of the aisle vocalizing concern in an Education Committee hearing.
"We get all bent out of shape when the federal government tells us what to do and now we're trying to do that to the local systems," Republican Rep. Tommy Benton said. "This is one more poke in the eye for public education."
Twenty-six people gave public comment at that hearing, with a dozen firmly opposing the OSD. They pointed out that the state already has a mechanism for intervening in failing schools (GaDOE can compel school boards to work with them to get troubled schools back on track). They questioned the rubric for determining school failure, something called the College and Career Ready Performance Index (CCRPI), which has been changed to address persistent flaws every year since it launched in 2013. And they asserted that schools were struggling not for a lack of innovation, as RSD proponents posited, but because Georgia's governors had cut $9 billion from the state's education budget over 15 years.
Perhaps most importantly, those who spoke out met each other, and a movement to save public education was born.
Despite mounting opposition, the OSD resolution and accompanying bill narrowly passed both the House and Senate in March 2015, in part due to Deal strong-arming members of his own party who were tempted to vote their conscience, and buying Democratic support with legislative deals.
The individuals and organizations that had shown up throughout the legislative session to oppose the OSD soon banded together. They had 18 months before the November 2016 election.
At first, working together was messy. There were arguments, misunderstandings, and even times when members stormed out of meetings. But the divisions that spawned tensions were also reflective of the group's uniqueness.
"Out of my history of organizing, this is one of the most diverse coalitions I've ever seen," said Kimberly Brooks, an Atlanta parent who is a plaintiff in the lawsuit challenging the Amendment One ballot language. "Progressive, conservative, everyone from across the spectrum is coming in."
Even when the group stumbled, the work didn't stop.
"Keep working on your lane," is how Janet Kishbaugh, a parent of two public school students and co-founder of Public Education Matters Georgia, describes their strategy. "Work as hard as you can. If we can maintain that grassroots movement, we can drop a campaign structure on it at some point."
So for months, members of this coalition, eventually named Keep Georgia Schools Local, have talked about the OSD every chance they got. All over the state, at church functions, school programs, town halls, and community events, they've passed out flyers, spoke on panels, and talked with people one on one.
"I've been down so many lonely little dark roads leading to a lonely little community center," Kishbaugh recounted. "But thirty people are there and they are committed to defeating this thing."
She recalled speaking to one such group, convened by a pastor in a rural area. He told Kishbaugh he would preach against the OSD all over the county, but he needed a shirt like the one she was wearing, with an anti-OSD message on it. She didn't have any more like it. "So I went to the car and changed shirts," she said.
Melissa Ladd, the Coweta County teacher, handed out flyers at a Relay for Life cancer walk. A group of public school parents in Athens commissioned an airplane to fly a banner reading "Vote No On Amendment 1" over a University of Georgia football game. Whatever coalition members did in their regular lives, they brought the OSD struggle to it.
The larger organizations worked to activate their bases. The Georgia Association of Educators convened "Education Summer" in Savannah to teach their members the basics of community organizing. Leaders from the American Federation of Teachers and the Georgia Parent Teacher Association travelled all over the state to meet with members. The Georgia School Board Association published a toolkit to help school board leaders understand the OSD and educate the communities in their districts.
"There are a lot of pieces of this where the school doesn't have any say-so," Justin Pauly, a spokesperson for the Georgia School Boards Association said. "The general consensus is that this is an erosion of local control. The majority of these boards oppose it." As of this writing, 53 school boards in Georgia have passed resolutions against the OSD.
Along the way, other organizations have joined the fight. The NAACP and the Concerned Black Clergy took up the cause. Civil Rights veteran Andrew Young recently joined baseball legend Hank Aaron in a high-profile press conference to denounce the OSD.
Atlanta-based organizations have challenged the OSD by drawing connections between the takeover plan and the city's rampant gentrification, an issue that strikes a nerve with working class Black communities that are under increasing threat of displacement.
"When they take over the schools, the ultimate goal is to take over the community," Bishop John Lewis III shouted to a cheering crowd at a recent anti-OSD rally at Booker T. Washington High School.
The school, Martin Luther King Jr.'s alma mater, is on Atlanta's west side, where a new stadium and other developments have attracted investors hungry to flip houses. The connection between charter school proliferation and gentrification is concrete; a 2015 Georgia State University study found that homes within the priority admissions zone of a charter school sold at prices ten percent higher, on average, than those zoned for traditional public schools.
The National Education Association membership voted to back up the anti-takeover organizing in a big way. The teacher's union has so far contributed $2 million to Keep Georgia Schools Local, enabling the coalition to hire field directors and canvassers, aggressively phone bank, and buy TV ads lambasting Amendment One and the OSD.
That's probably what made Deal sit up and take notice.
Until recently, the most vocal crusaders for Amendment One were the state director of Students First (now called GeorgiaCAN), a Democratic state representative whose daughter attended a failing school eligible for OSD takeover (and who sat on the board of a charter school that folded), and the staff of Deal's dark money group, Georgia Leads, which has so far been the primary donor to a pro-OSD campaign called Opportunity for All Georgia Students. The national organization that subsumed StudentsFirst earlier this year, 50CAN, also gave a sizeable amount––$310,000––to the pro campaign.
In the past few months, though, Deal has attempted to do damage control on the turning tide of public opinion threatening to squelch his plan.
In September, he pandered to 30 Black church leaders in a meeting at the Governor's Mansion. Rev. Chester Ellis of Savannah said most of the people there were unswayed. "We got a whole lot of rhetoric, but we didn't get any answers."
In October, Deal tried to make a case for the OSD by appealing to wealthy people, saying in a speech to a group of engineers that fixing failing schools would save them from "criminals" who drop out of school, leave their school districts where "those people don't have anything worth stealing," and come to areas with "nice homes and nice cars" to rob them. Unsurprisingly, his argument sparked more criticism than support.
Though the passage of Amendment One initially seemed likely, a recent poll by the Atlanta Journal Constitution showed voters siding overwhelmingly against Amendment One, and a similar poll by a local news station led reporters to conclude that Deal's plan is "basically imploding."
It might be too late for Deal to salvage the school takeover plan, but profiteers have already cashed in. Mere months after the OSD bill passed in 2015, Erin Hames stepped down from her position on the Governor's staff and started a consulting firm in order to advise school districts on avoiding takeover under the legislation she wrote.
On the same day that Hames announced her resignation, Atlanta Public Schools (APS), which has more schools eligible for takeover than any district in the state, awarded her a no-bid $96,000 contract. The school board also called in the Boston Consulting Group to conduct a $500,000 study. Together, Hames and BCG hammered out a "turnaround strategy" that looks not unlike what an OSD takeover would likely entail: school closures, mass firings, and turning schools over to private operators.
A new charter management organization, Purpose Built Schools, quickly incorporated and just as quickly was awarded an APS contract to manage four schools in a neighborhood on the cusp of gentrification. (Interestingly, APS chose the same schools that Michelle Rhee named as good candidates for state takeover in a speech after the OSD bill passed.) Purpose Built Schools is a spin-off of Purpose Built Communities, whose mission is to spread a model, pioneered in Atlanta, of privatizing public housing and public schools together in one package.
These developments just go to show that even if Georgia voters reject Amendment One, the fight to save, and truly improve, the state's public education is far from over.
"After we defeat this amendment, the next step is examining the issues that led us to this," said Kimberly Brooks. "And we have to prepare for the next one. Because this is not it. We know it's not. We need to continue the energy and the education."