Four proposed amendments to the Georgia Constitution appear on the ballot Tuesday, Nov. 8, and none has attracted more attention and debate than Amendment 1, the Opportunity School District proposal.
Amendment 1, which is backed by Gov. Nathan Deal and is opposed by educators, local school boards and Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, asks voters to give the state authority to “intervene in chronically failing schools” to try to improve student performance.
A vote for the amendment would enable the state to create an agency and the governor to appoint a new state schools superintendent position. That superintendent, who would report to the governor, would have the power to take over, run or shut down schools that earned an F on the state’s accountability system three years in a row.
The superintendent would also have the option to convert failing public schools into charter schools under the State Charter Schools Commission, which was created by a constitutional amendment in 2012.
Up to 20 schools a year could be taken over, and a maximum of 100 would be in the Opportunity School District at any time.
Schools that are taken over would operate in the Opportunity School District for up to 10 years and would return to local control only after scoring above failing for three consecutive years.
Taxpayers would continue to pay a per-student amount to support local schools, but 3 percent of the local school taxes would go to the Opportunity School District for administration.
Supporters of the proposal say school systems have had many chances to act but have continued to fail tens of thousands of students, putting their future in jeopardy: 70 percent of Georgia prison inmates lack a high school diploma.
On Sept. 22, the Georgia Board of Education endorsed the Opportunity School District, saying it will “improve the education of Georgia children trapped in failing schools.”
State Rep. Mike Dudgeon of Johns Creek, a former Forsyth County school board member, said the proposal will motivate local school boards and provide accountability.
But Reed announced his opposition to Amendment 1 on Oct. 26, saying he worries about local schools handing control to an entity that’s not accountable to voters and about the governor gaining too much power.
“I oppose this proposal because I believe it will inevitably result in the diversion of public funds for public schools to private entities, with inadequate oversight, and without accountability to parents,” the Democratic mayor said. “I believe such a change in our state, through the permanent measure of a constitutional amendment, will weaken our public schools and create conditions where they become the last resort for desperate families, rather than a symbol of excellence and source of community pride.”
In opposing the amendment, Reed joined other leaders in his party and more than 40 school boards and educator groups, including the Georgia School Boards Association and the DeKalb County Board of Education, which has 28 schools that would be subject to takeover.
Atlanta Braves legend Hank Aaron and former Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young have also stepped up to the plate to oppose Amendment 1. Young said that “self-esteem is the basis of good education” and that taking it away from local educators is “a sin and a shame and we cannot allow it.”
Another contentious aspect of the amendment is the wording on the ballot: “Shall the Constitution of Georgia be amended to allow the state to intervene in chronically failing public schools in order to improve student performance?”
Opponents have argued that the ballot question uses deceptive language. A lawsuit filed in September states the question is “so misleading and deceptive that it violates the due process and voting rights of all Georgia voters.”