Kyle Wingfield

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

Want local control of education? Pass the Opportunity School District

All politics is local, and that goes double for school politics. But just what does “local” mean?

Georgians are going to have an argument about that word between now and the November referendum on the proposed Opportunity School District. A great logomachy over localism, if you like.

The OSD, if approved, would allow the state to take control of public schools with failing grades for at least three straight years. The state could force certain changes at such a school, run the school itself, convert it to a charter school, or even shut it down.

In doing so, the state would have the authority to redirect the school’s portion of locally raised taxes. And that has opponents screaming about “local control” being undermined.

First, it’s worth noting that “local control” is one of the more malleable political-cudgels-posing-as-principle you’ll find in state politics. Republicans use it to bash Democratic proposals, and vice versa.

But our debate this fall isn’t really about whether to honor local control. It’s about exactly how local the control should be.

Opponents of the OSD argue the local school board is where the authority properly lies. They have the advantage of tradition on their side: That’s the way it’s always been.

But the way it’s always been has never produced the results we’ve always needed. Local school-board elections — in communities where parents of current students are typically outnumbered by other voters — have not provided the accountability needed to end chronic failure in far too many places, both urban and rural.

The OSD would not shift the local board’s power to the state so much as allow the state to drill below the local board’s level and insert that power in the schoolhouse itself.

While the OSD’s superintendent would have four options for dealing with schools selected for takeover, I think most close observers agree the most common option would be converting them to state charter schools.

No school has more local control than a charter school. It has its own governing board, rather than the board for the whole district. And that board has real power: over finances, hiring and firing, curriculum, and so on. That’s much more power at a lower level than the vast majority of public schools have. At OSD schools that don’t become charters, there will still be advisory school councils.

In fact, the bill passed to direct implementation of the OSD, should voters approve the measure, has at least a dozen references to control being exercised well below the state level.

The OSD’s superintendent must hold a public hearing before selecting a school for the new district; must consult the local school board, principal and superintendent before transferring it to the new district; and must seek still more local input before deciding which of the four options to take with the school. Particularly in the case of converted charter schools, the OSD’s superintendent will yield much of the school’s operations to school leaders. Then, when it’s time for a school to leave the new district (within 10 years), the OSD’s superintendent must work with the local community again about how to make that transition.

Taken together, that’s a more meaningful measure of control at an even more local level than most schools, parents and students enjoy today.

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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.