By Sam Burnham
This coming November, among the pile of candidates on the ballot, Georgia voters will find a ballot initiative that will propose allowing the state government to take over "failing" schools and somehow elevate them to a level of success. The initiative will appear on the ballot as a measure that will allow officials to "intervene in chronically failing public schools in order to improve student performance." A "yes" vote would allow state officials to take control of schools that are determined to be "chronically failing" and set up a program that would allegedly lead to satisfactory student achievement.
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has produced a map that shows the locations of specific schools that are in the crosshairs of the proposed law. The schools on the map are typically either in the inner-sicty areas of Atlanta, Savannah, Augusta, Macon, and Columbus or they are in rural areas. There are rural systems in which the entire system is on the list.
We will probably revisit this issue before election day but I want to offer some first thoughts on the issue and see how this situation develops.
First of all, Atlanta Public Schools factors heavy in this deal. 27 of their 1001 schools find themselves on this map. That's 26.7% of the schools in that system. More than 1 in 4 of Atlanta's public schools are considered to be chronically failing.
Randolph, Taliaferro, Macon, and Talbot Counties are each represented by a 100% failing schools rate. Every school in each of these systems are considered chronically failing.
This represents the two ends of the spectrum in Georgia. Atlanta is considered a world-class city, a metropolis that has hosted the Olympics and is building a stadium with a price tag of over $1.5 billion in hopes of hosting yet another Super Bowl. The city of Atlanta has an enormous tax base with which to generate resources for its local school system. With the presence of the Atlanta University Center, The Georgia Institute of Technology, Georgia State University, and numerous other colleges in the city, there is opportunity to seek the assistance of educational resources to help boost school performance.
The rural systems that made the list don't have as many resources available. The budgets are much smaller and the distance from colleges and universities makes forming educational partnerships more difficult.
But here is the lesson to be learned, the lesson we must learn. In a healthy and functioning community, the school system plays a part, just like law enforcement, local businesses, local churches, civic organizations, etc. A community is an organism that needs healthy parts to make up a whole. A failing school system is indicative of a failing community. That sounds really harsh but go back to the data. These schools are in under-performing neighborhoods. These communities often have trouble with poverty, crime, food deserts, lack of strong civic organizations, and poor relationships with law enforcement and education. This is not a problem of race as "failing" communities can be found with every racial make up you can imagine, especially in rural Georgia.
The relationship between parents and educators is essential to the success of students and therefore schools. When parents, even those who value education, lack a strong relationship with the school, the student is already at a disadvantage. Parents need to be able to trust on the institutions that are educating their children. Educators need to be able to do their jobs with the full support of the parents in their community. Parents who don't understand the educational process or that are engaged in in multiple jobs trying to feed, clothe and educate multiple children often have neither the time or the energy to adequately engage in their child's school. Likewise, educators who fail to recognize the impact that home issues have on their students can't really connect on their end. A community depends on strong bonds.
The idea that allowing the state to just take over the schools would somehow make the situation better is foolish. Forcing a community to relinquish control of one of its essential institutions and turning that institution over to some faceless bureaucrat in Atlanta is asking for disaster. Much of our educational funding comes from the state but the face on each school needs to be local. School boards are and should remain locally elected bodies that build locally operated schools. That's a relationship that you can't build with Atlanta, especially if you figure that Cuthbert, in Randolph County, is actually closer to Tallahassee than it is to Atlanta.
So what is the answer? We've got to help communities. We have to see the communities get stronger. Atlanta cannot continue to aspire to the level of world class city with a failing school system built in failing communities. We need to get our colleges and universities to partner with failing schools. Perhaps we need to research ways to strengthen communities. And we need to be prepared for the possibility (read:bet the farm on it) that there is a different answer in each case. What works in Taliaferro is probably not what is going to work in Atlanta. The Talbot County solution is probably not going to work in Macon. We might need more than one answer.
There is a problem with many schools in Georgia. No one is disputing that. But bigger government is not going to work. It never does. What will work is fixing neighborhoods and communities. The Golden Dome is a fantastic destination for field trips for our schools. But the thing is just too big and gaudy to work inside of them. Get our kids to the capitol but keep the capitol out of our schools. Vote "No" on November 8th.
Historian, self-proclaimed gentleman, agrarian-at-heart, & curator extraordinaire