Opportunity for Whom? Explaining Amendment 1 to the Georgia Constitution

By Emily Maloney

If you were at the homecoming football game against Vanderbilt this year, while looking skyward in despair at the state of the game and UGA football in general this season, you likely glimpsed a plane circling above the stadium pulling a banner reading, “No School Takeover. Vote No on Amendment 1.”

Football woes aside, the proposed Amendment 1 to the Georgia constitution has been controversial, as indicated by the unanticipated political presence at Sanford Stadium, with tensions heating up in the past few weeks leading up to Election Day.

Strongly supported by Governor Nathan Deal, the amendment to the constitution would allow state takeover of schools deemed to be chronically failing by putting them into an Opportunity School District led by a governor-appointed superintendent. That superintendent would have the power to close the school and send the students elsewhere, turn it into a charter school, completely take over the school, or share governance with the local school board.

The ballot language that people will be voting on 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?”

Clearly, this is misleading as it obscures information about key details in what a state intervention could and would entail for students, parents, teachers, and administrators of those schools. A class action lawsuit, led by a Georgia parent, reverend, and public school teacher, has been filed, alleging that the wording of the ballot is purposefully deceptive, asserting the opposite of what will happen should this amendment pass.

Some major stakeholders have come out against Amendment 1, including the National Education Association, who donated $4.7 million to the opposition’s campaign, and The Georgia Parent Teacher Association, which has been continually holding press conferences and events educating citizens about Amendment 1.

Why are people so against it?

For one, versions of the Opportunity School District have been implemented in Louisiana, Tennessee, and Michigan, none of which have been successful. While it’s difficult to point at exactly why the model did not work in these states, it’s likely that the change in governance of the schools did not address the actual problem facing these schools and may have exacerbated the issues with institutional turnover that affected the stability of the school.

Additionally, turning schools into charter schools appears to be an attractive option, because they have the ability to implement inventive policies outside of the typical public school norms. However, research on charter schools in action reveals that 15% of charter schools have closed nationally, and many of these closures were on the basis of financial mismanagement and low academic achievement. Furthermore, charter schools have been found to reinforce de facto segregation of schools, with 70% of black charter school students attending schools attending “intensely segregated minority charter schools;” this is twice the amount of black students attending public schools with similar levels of segregation. Other issues with charter schools include the fact that they do not perform better than traditional public schools, in some cases (usually online charters) actually have lower student achievement than traditional public schools, and they typically serve fewer special education students. Lastly, charter schools have become an area in which the profit of a corporation is prioritized over the academic quality of students, leading to multiple instances of charter school fraud in the past few years.

If this were truly about increasing the quality of education Georgia students receive, then Georgia would be implementing a model shown to work, or at least mentioning real, concrete policies that combat the heart of the problem. 

The heart of the problem is that schools with higher proportions of students living in poverty start on a different playing field than schools that have mostly affluent students. Ranking them all based on the same metric, their performance on state standardized tests, is unfair and means that students of color and impoverished students are more likely to face school takeover. There is nothing in the Opportunity School District legislation that mentions policies that work to alleviate the strain of poverty on these schools.

Amendment One to the constitution reads as a state-sponsored move towards the privatization of Georgia’s public schools. Public schools are a hallmark of democracy in the United States, and using this legislation to remove power from local parents, teachers, and school boards is an overreach of the state.

If we really want to help schools in Georgia, let’s give a voice to the teachers, administration, and families who work in and attend those schools every day. Let’s begin addressing the effects of poverty on education by supporting wrap-around services that address the non-academic needs of students, such as primary and mental health care, family engagement programs, after school and summer initiatives, and before and after-school food programs, at the schools that need it most. Let’s look at how we fund schools and how we can make funding more equitable when we consider the high levels of segregation across race and class lines you can clearly see in and around Atlanta. The bottom line is that our local schools deserve to be heard by our state government. They deserve a better policy than what Amendment 1 has to offer.