Kyle Wingfield

Political commentary and opinion from The Atlanta Journal-Constitution's conservative blogger

Opinion: Failing-schools bill needs to add choices for Georgia's students


Lawmakers are taking another crack at improving Georgia’s failing schools, and it seems the new approach is to make it an inside job.

A new position of “chief turnaround officer” would be filled by a veteran of the public schools, with candidates suggested by the lobbying arms of the public - schools establishment . This turnaround chief would hire a cadre of “turnaround coaches” — on the advice of those same groups — to work with low-performing schools. The coaches would design and implement “school improvement plans” for two years, then re-evaluate. If a school doesn’t improve, the plan may continue. Or more managers may be brought in. Or, eventually, someone might lose their job. Or, after rampant, years-long failure across the entire district, school board members might lose their jobs.

What's missing from this picture? The same thing largely missing from HB 338.

If that sounds like meaningful change, you might be an educrat. Or a student with Stockholm Syndrome.

In fact, the best argument I’ve heard for House Bill 338 is it’s better than doing nothing. That’s quite a motto: The General Assembly: We (probably) aren’t making Georgia worse!

But if you’re wondering why a bill to fix failing schools would focus so much on what happens to the school and its employees, and not on helping students spending crucial chunks of their schooling in substandard settings, you’re not alone.

“If we don’t care about what happens to any one kid right now, then we don’t care about kids,” Rep. Ed Setzler , R-Acworth, told me this week, repeating a sentiment he voiced at a hearing for the bill last week. “If you don’t create circumstances where individual parents have real choice options for their kid, we’re not really serving many kids well.”

The original draft of the bill, I’m told, included a voucher for these students, though it didn’t kick in for six years. Instead, HB 338 allows them to choose another district school “from a list of available options provided by the local system.” Such “options” are supposed to exist today, but the better schools are invariably too full to accept any new students from the failing schools. It’s an empty promise.

I’m also told there’s one reason a more robust choice option didn’t make it into the bill: Senate leaders would balk.

I’ve never understood why the Georgia Senate’s leaders are so dead-set against these measures. Opinion polls show school choice is viewed favorably by a large majority of Georgians, and an even larger majority of those who vote in Republican primaries. You might think a Senate leader thinking of running for — oh, I don’t know — governor next year would take the opposite approach.

Nor am I sure why the House is letting the Senate hold an effective veto over the legislation it proposes. It’s one thing if the legislative process produces a watered-down, compromise bill. It’s another thing for the House to have effectively conceded defeat before that process began.

If HB 338 won’t include a real choice component, lawmakers could also pass separate bills to raise the cap on tax-credit scholarships , to create education savings accounts , and to strengthen charter schools . Otherwise, they’re consigning another generation of Georgia students to another adult-centric flavor of “reform.”


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About the Author

Kyle Wingfield joined the AJC in 2009. He is a native of Dalton and a graduate of the University of Georgia.