Jay Bookman

Opinion columnist and blogger with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, specializing in foreign relations, environmental and technology-related issues

Don't be fooled by deceptive ballot language

Let me suggest a useful rule of thumb in reading the ballot language on proposed constitutional amendments in Georgia: Whatever you think it means, it often means the opposite.

Take the title to Amendment 1 on this year’s ballot. It says, and I quote:

Provides greater flexibility and state accountability to fix failing schools through increasing community involvement.”

” … through increasing community involvement.” Hmmm. Our rule of thumb tells us that Amendment 1 will NOT increase community involvement, but in fact is designed and intended to do exactly the opposite. And sure enough, that’s exactly right.

Amendment 1 would give the governor the authority to seize control of as many as 20 local schools a year, up to a total of 100. The locally elected school board, answerable to local voters, would be stripped of any control or authority over those schools. The governor would be empowered to seize local tax revenue as well, with no oversight by locally elected officials.

There is no honest way that Amendment 1 could be accurately described as “increasing community involvement.” Instead, the language is intended to deceive those many Georgians who support community involvement and control over schools into voting to put that control into state hands, stripping parents, teachers and local taxpayers of any effective say.

So let me introduce a second rule of thumb: When someone trying to sell you something tells a blatant lie in the very first sentence of the sales pitch, everything that follows is probably based on deception as well.

The wording of the actual ballot question is also interesting. It reads:

“Shall the Constitution of Georgia be amended to allow the state to intervene in chronically failing public schools in order to improve student performance?”

As those who drafted the question know, it’s hard to oppose a measure that will improve student performance. Who could be against that? Georgia schools have been slowly getting better — national standardized test scores are rising, as are graduation rates — but that improvement has come in painfully small increments, and major funding shortfalls in recent years haven’t helped. Laying off teachers, cutting the number of school days and packing more students into each classroom are on nobody’s list of steps likely to improve educational performance.

In Georgia as elsewhere, improvement has been slowest where it is needed most, in school districts with a large number of students living in poverty. It’s frustrating, even tragic.

To date, however, I have yet to see or hear a convincing argument explaining how putting local schools in the governor’s control is going to fix anything. It hasn’t worked in Tennessee, where a similar program has produced little or no improvement in targeted schools, according to research by Vanderbilt University. In Michigan, the state-run Educational Achievement Authority — “racked by financial scandal, poor academic performance and even worse public perception,” says the Detroit News — will cease operations at the end of the school year. In Louisiana, the state-run Recovery School District is also being phased out of existence.

The real impact of Amendment 1 will be to concentrate more power in the governor’s office, but the ballot language is silent on that count. If you want to know why, I refer you back to the two rules of thumb outlined above.

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About the Author

Jay Bookman writes about government and politics, with an occasional foray into other aspects of life as time, space and opportunity allow.