Kyle Wingfield

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

Georgia's failing schools: The worst of the worst

A quick skim of the list of failing schools that would be eligible for state takeover under Gov. Nathan Deal’s proposed constitutional amendment will make you think you’re seeing double, or even triple.

Cedar Grove and Cedar Grove. Dooly County and Dooly County. Macon County, Macon County and Macon County. Glenn Hills, Glenn Hills and Glenn Hills.

But these are neither optical illusions nor typos. They represent elementary, middle and/or high schools of the same name in the same district, none of which managed to score 60 out of 110 in the state’s rating system even once in the past three years.

By my count, there are 25 elementary schools in Georgia that not only are themselves failing, but which feed students into failing middle schools and then into failing high schools as well. A kindergartner in one of those schools this year is, on the current trajectory, staring at 12 more years of attending failing schools -- if he doesn’t become yet another of these schools’ dropouts, which of course is part of the problem.

All told, these examples of uninterrupted k-12 failure account for 48 of the 141 schools on the list. Dozens more schools, rising to well over half of the total, are in feeder patterns where kids will attend at least two failing schools.

But what we might call the total-failure feeder patterns are the most galling. Some of them represent the only public schools open in four poor, rural counties: Macon, Randolph, Talbot and Taliaferro. The others are located in one of five systems: Atlanta plus Bibb, DeKalb, Dougherty and Richmond counties.

The failed feeder patterns in those five systems are where we might expect Deal’s proposed Opportunity School District to begin its work. They serve lots of kids, they have been in bad shape for a long time, and each one represents a relatively tight geographic area.

So I took a closer look at those five districts, in light of two common excuses offered to justify their failure: poverty levels and funding amounts.

It’s true, all five serve poor populations. The share of students qualifying for free or reduced lunch (FRL) ranged from 82 percent in Dougherty to 71 percent in DeKalb.

Compared to Georgia’s other school systems, though, their poverty rates are unfortunately not exceptional. Twenty systems had higher FRL rates than Dougherty. DeKalb ranked only 78th.

What is exceptional is how much these systems spend per pupil.

Spending per pupil in those five systems, weighted for student populations, was 21 percent higher than what was spent in systems without any failing schools -- a difference of almost $1,700 per child per year. For a class of 20 students, that’s almost $34,000 more.

They spent more on each child for instruction ($701), more on pupil services ($44) and staff services ($302), more on general administration ($225) and school administration ($76), more on transportation ($14), more on maintenance and operations ($329).

The question before legislators -- and, I hope, before voters in 2016 -- is whether the usual excuses justify leaving these schools and their students under the same management that let them get into this shape.

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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.