Georgia governor Nathan Deal, a super-superintendent of failing schools?

My Atlanta surgeon-friend called me the other day and he “cut straight to the chase”:
“And so, what is your take on the Georgia governor’s referendum for taking over failing schools?”

This is me getting back to him…

The wisdom of referendums…

But before I could honestly respond, I first needed to confront my current lost love affair with the wisdom of the electorate to make intelligent and enlightened decisions through referendums. The recent Brexit vote in England that fundamentally was a response to the UN estimated 1.5 million (another estimated 4,000 dying in the process), refugees seeking shelter and safety in Europe. These desperate people are risking their lives to escape lawless nations engulfed in brutal wars. These refugees by the way, were actually never going to get to Great Britain. Further, most economists agree that the action will seriously hurt the British economy; but anti-immigrant passion, not facts won the day.

And recently there was the rejection of a very good and sensible “peace plan” referendum to end a 50 year old devastating civil war between the Colombian government and leftists insurgents; this war often left those same “reject” voters to bear the violence and displacement brunt of the war. It seemed that the opposition’s campaign theme song was “All we are saying, let’s give war a chance!”

Finally, in our own country we see the terrible legitimization and the ascendancy of a proto-fascist movement led by Donald Trump. This racist-sexist-bigoted campaign is being cheered on by those former high school students, who clearly cut class when the world history teacher explained how a 1930s “Make Germany Great Again” Nazi movement was actually voted into power. Yes, it seems that of late there is a binge on the part of the world community, in seeking to vote for communal suicide.

And so despite my crisis of faith in the wisdom of the masses when it comes to referendums; I went online to objectively review the details of this proposed “executive takeover” November 2016 referendum. It said:

“A “yes” vote supports authorizing the state to form an Opportunity School District that would govern certain elementary and secondary schools determined to be “chronically failing.”
“Approval of the amendment by voters was designed to trigger the implementation of Senate Bill 133. SB 133 provides for three governance models of schools under an “Opportunity School District” (OSD) agency:
1) Direct management by the OSD,
2) Shared governance between the OSD and local board of education and
3) Transformation of the school into a charter school.”

“Direct management by the OSD”

Now I believe that just about every state education department in the nation is already empowered through state legislation to “intervene” to some or total degree in the management and operation of a local school district (LSD). This intervention could be as simple as appointing a financial manager when a school district fails to maintain the legally required Fund Balance (emergency cash in reserve); or the district fails to submit the also legally required balanced school district budget. Other factors like major violations of criminal, ethical or conflict of interest laws, on the part of the majority, or all of the members of a school board could lead to a state (superintendent’s) takeover of a school district. Further, state education departments already have the legislative authority to insist on the major restructuring of “chronically failing schools”; that would include school redesign, leadership and staffing changes. And so in many cases the “technical” authority to “take over” a school, or a school district already exist in most state superintendent’s offices.

But where Senate Bill 133 differs from the authority already existing in a state superintendent’s office, is that the actions of state superintendents are designed as temporary, and not permanent “control”. The long-term objective of the state education department is to always return the school, or the school district to local control. In other words, the state education department and its state superintendent don’t see themselves in the permanent business of “directly” managing schools and school districts. Part of the reason for their reluctance, is part of the problem with this bill.

State education departments can’t serve in both the role of public education monitoring and educational law enforcement agencies; and also directly run the school’s for which they are charged with overseeing. Direct state control of local schools essentially leaves those schools answerable to no state evaluative, monitoring, and if necessary corrective enforcement agency. The analogy would be a baseball player of one team serving as both a player and umpire during the course of a game. A tragic example of this “conflict of interest” problem, is New Orleans, where “state takeover” of a city’s schools system left parents and students (particularly special education, English language learners and underperforming students, who could be denied admission to a charter school), without any entity to protect their educational interests. In such a system the state has the power to declare “improvement” of the schools they run, even when there is no improvement. Black folks know the drill in this country: “no oversight = no justice”!

The governor of any state is the most powerful elected official in that state, and he or she either directly, or indirectly has great influence as to the appointment of that state’s superintendent (or in some states commissioner) of education. Further the governor has a great deal of authority over the budget of the state education department. And so politics being what it is, the question emerges: “Who would have the legal authority, or perhaps even the political authority to monitor and evaluate the governor’s schools?” What if there is financial malfeasance, the violation of ethics and conflict of interest laws in one of these governor-controlled schools? What about matters of racial or sexual discrimination? School admissions or zoning violations? What happens if they fail to implement special education, state or federal educational rules and regulations, who is going to sanction them? And most important; what happens if the “governors OSD schools” themselves become “chronically failing” schools? Who is authorize to take them over? The law would suggest that the governor himself would be forced to take over his own failed (by his own actions) OSD schools! Does that then place these schools in a hopeless failing and “take over” loop? There are a host of other legally and operationally questionable problems, but I’ll stop here.

Putting aside the many legal and other regulatory problems that would be caused by the implementation of Senate Bill 133(it will be Christmas time for some education lawyers in Georgia!). Let us look at the role of the mayors and governor as educational problem solvers!

Unfortunately, I have studied; and had firsthand experience, of the many horrible and deleterious outcomes associated with the “governor-mayoral control” of public school systems. These “reform” efforts promise to remove the “political problems” associated with elected school boards and the oversized influence and power of teacher unions. However the truth is that little has changed. Political influence, corruption, nepotism, the lack of racial diversity and sensitivity in the hiring of “amateur” district and school leaders, the devastating national loss of large numbers of Black teachers, the continued and in some cases expanded use of non-minority consultants and vendors continues. The awarding of lucrative contracts to friends, political allies, and in some cases to each other, has left many communities of color still waiting for the promised academic achievement change. It seems that the only consistent factor present in all of these “executive governance reform” efforts is that Black and Latino students are consistently left academically behind!

Hyper-politicization in public education is the problem, not the solution!

Further, my experience as a school district superintendent has taught me one important lesson: if the schools that serve students of color have any hope of succeeding, then those struggling schools need to be affirmatively depoliticize, rather than hyper-politicize! For it is “political shenanigans” that is the primary cause of Black school districts that chronically fail to adequately serve the educational needs, aspirations and dreams of their children. The switching of multiple elected politicians for one “big” elected politician, is not the answer. What these schools need most is a professional pedagogical leadership team; led by a certified and experienced superintendent who can without restrictions, hire first-rate principals. These professional educational teams could then focus the schools and district in a laser-like way on teaching and learning.

“Shared governance between the OSD and local board of education”

I won’t spend too much time on this one. The quick and easy answer is this: a school that is required to respond to two sources of governance, succeeds in not responding to any; or ends up responding poorly to both. If the local educational agency is incapable of managing a school then sharing in and working with their incapability and lack of competence, will only confuse and frustrate the principal and the staff. This is also unworkable because the governor’s advisers have not properly informed him as to how schools actually work (I know, everyone knows how schools work because they attended them!) There are a lot of required administrative actions that go back and forth between the school and the LSD; a dual governance system will only make the school-LSD relationship toxic, chaotic, confusing and unproductive.

“Transformation of the school into a charter school.”

The business of public schooling is education, and our profit motivation is the production of a learned citizen. And so, I am not convinced as to the governor’s plan to rely on the “commercialization” (charter schools) of public schools as the solution. First, because public schooling, is not designed to serve as a profit-making exercise; societies invest in public education as a way to produce the next generation of planetary caretakers; schools are an investment in the future. Further, it is not like the business community has had a stellar record. (See the recent financial meltdown for which the taxpayers had to “bail businesses out”; their profits are now back up, the taxpayers not doing so good!) And so there is no evidence that the business community’s core operational philosophy to place profits before people, is the kind of environment we want to place the most politically vulnerable members of our society. Finally, like the apartheid (non-Black owned and operated) other parts of the school reform movement; the charter school entrepreneurial ownership community also seems to lack color (i.e. diversity i.e. Black people) at the top. And who gave them permission to speak for Black communities and Black children anyway? Finally, like any business the charter school entrepreneurial community employs lobbyists and campaign contributors. And so the question is: which charter companies will be able to position themselves to get to the front of the line of this financially lucrative school reform trough? I do know that the poor, Black parents-children and communities of Georgia don’t have lobbyists and campaign funds to dole out so that elected officials can act on their behalf.

Now I understand that this charter movement is fueled by a legitimate desire on the part of Black parents to escape from the low expectations and labor-management agreements that has literally placed adults high above students on the hierarchy of service and concern in our public schools. As a lifelong educator I have learned that parents (rightfully so) are committed to their child’s education, not to the continuation and survivability of a public school system. Those of us who have dedicated most of our lives to public schools must come to understand that the sound of “marching student feet” from our schools into charter schools (and in many cases private and homeschooling situations) are the legitimate sounds of parental frustration. And if you want to end that sound, then there must be a serious self-reflective and serious radical self-transformation of the present state of public education. And to be honest I am not fully convinced because of systemic racism in our nation, that the will exists to make such a profound change possible. But it does not matter, even if we don’t change, the reality around us will change. And so I make no criticism of these charter school parents who are desperately seeking a place that will at the very least express an interest in high standards and expectations for their children.

Anti-referendum folks don’t thank me yet…

I also researched the opponents of the referendum. Ok, so the usual “players” line up predictably on the “Anti” side of the referendum question. However, what is missing, and is always missing in these discussions of how to fix “failing schools”, are the voices of professional educators who look like the children in those schools in need of “fixing”.

But as problematic, probably ineffective, and probably illegal, the governor’s plan may be for the task of helping struggling schools. I would advise caution on the part of the opponents of this referendum. They should first take note of my opening comments concerning the results of recent referendums. I would also advise them to design the appropriate oppositional tone for their campaign; because the truth is that the academic underperforming numbers are what they are (Yes, I also looked up the horrible performance data for these “chronically failing” schools). There is a reasonable and undeniable public frustration with public education; particularly for communities for which public education has dramatically and continually failed their children. And just saying that we can’t teach these children because they are poor, they don’t live in wealthy neighborhoods, their parents don’t have college degrees, and don’t teach them to read before they enter kindergarten, etc., won’t cut it. And then there is that long list of betrayals (including those committed by Black educators!) There is no wonder that Black parents have lost faith in the ability of public schools to be able to, or even have the desire to, educate their children.
And so, it would be a serious mistake for the referendum opposition forces to lead with slogans like:

“Things are going well educationally for children in Georgia, and we just need to market our success better!”

“We have some problems, but we can solve them, with more money, and a “tweaking” of the present system.”

“Our effective public schools, specialized opportunity elementary-middle-high schools, certified teachers, access to financial, material and equipment resources, gifted and talented programs, advance and AP courses; are racially integrated and equally distributed throughout the Georgia school and district populations.”

“We got this governor!” (No, apparently you don’t, and the public and parents know it!)

The first question (assuming that they would even ask me) I would ask the opening meeting of the “oppositional coalition” is: “How did we get here?” Because that critical question is in actuality their real and most effective path to defeating this referendum, and future similar initiatives. They could think of that question as the first step of a seven step recovery program to cure our chronic problem in public education of accepting unacceptable learning experiences for too many children of color in our nation. I have worked with a great number of politicians over the years; and there is one thing that I have learned, no matter how poorly a politician performs on any part of the mathematics curriculum, the one thing they could do well is the operation of addition. The governor would never push such a referendum if the “people”, including the Black citizens of Georgia, felt that the present public education structure was really doing a great job with their children; and in particular those children trapped in chronically underperforming schools.

And so if the “opposers” only strategy is to oppose; and not propose a radical change in the way Georgia public school districts are organized, structured, and go about their business; then it may be a very difficult and long election night, as the “yes votes” come cascading in. Win or lose, those opposed to the referendum must interpret the proposed referendum itself as actually a referendum on their poor performance to date. If not the governor’s plan, then somebody must come up with a plan! The present state of affairs, given the demographic projections of our nation don’t bode well for our future economy (or civil society); if the plan is to continue to create a soon to be majority segment of our youth population that is grossly uneducated and unprepared to function as productive citizens.

My advice to the governor…

As to the governor of Georgia: If he is sincerely interested in the plight of Georgia’s struggling public schools (and I am in no position to doubt his sincerity, even as I have doubts about his proposed solutions). If I were him, I would propose a few “modest” proposals that would, I believe really have a profound and positive impact on the quality of education in that state (while avoiding an ugly and divisive legal battle, I think):

1) I would start by introducing legislation that would dramatically strengthen the state ethics and conflict of interest laws when it comes to school boards. I would make these rules and regulations so stringent and strict that the only people who would want to seek a school board position would be those people who are genuinely interested in “Trusteeship”. Board membership should also be expanded to include college presidents-provosts, a representative of the Chamber of Commerce of that community, retired superintendents, and corporate executives. I would add “sharp teeth” to this legislation along with greater oversight and enforcement authority to an independent state commission. The school district’s attorneys should only represent the school district, not the board. Completely remove the board from any decision-making that involves personnel; as well as imposing severe sanctions for involving themselves in any of the day-to-day operations of the school district. Part of the inability to help schools to become academically successful, is the problem of large numbers of both urban and rural majority Black student school districts that suffer from: distractive and destructive operational interference from board members, and chronic superintendent turnover. This places the school district and its students at a disadvantage with many of the majority White and more stable school districts (the “school district stability gap”). Those Black children attending underperforming schools are in the greatest need of having superintendents who have the ability and authority to initiate and manage long-term sustained and measurable school improvement plans, projects and programs.

It is easier, and less expensive to “fix” high school student’s academic problems long before they reach High School. And so why don’t we do it?

2) The state should invest heavily in a comprehensive statewide early childhood education program. This program would begin with nutrition and parent education programs for pregnant mothers. I would conduct this “pre-pre-school intervention program” in cooperation with state’s obstetricians and pediatricians; every mother and father that leaves the hospital after the birth of their child should receive an educational package including books to read to their child, and a booklet on: “how to be an effective education parent”. I would turn the state’s pediatricians and pediatric dentist offices into book giveaway centers. In those districts that are academically underperforming, I would place full day pre-kindergarten in all of the elementary schools, thus providing them with certified teachers, and certified principal oversight.

Recruit, Enroll, Engage and Focus the private giving/philanthropic organizations and individuals in the state!

3) The governor could set up a fund-allocation (partially funded by private donors) for the poorest school districts in Georgia that will enable all of the schools in those districts to create comprehensive afterschool and weekend educational “themed” programs such as: STEM, art, instrumental music, dance, drama, chess, law and debate, coding and computer science, and “non-stereotypical” athletic programs (fencing, gymnastics, tennis, etc.) These programs are important for several reasons: first because they supplement the educational programs in schools where in many cases, they have abandoned these educational initiatives in order to devote a great deal of their budget and time to “test preparation”. Ironically, it is these curriculum areas that have been systematically removed from poor schools that actually inspire and expand a child’s intellectual capability, and allows them to perform better on standardized exams. These “extra curricula” activities will also serve to grow the “smartness” and cultural literacy of these children. Third, these activities will provide a safe and productive learning environment for what is too often an unproductive and unsafe time period for children at the end of the school day. Finally, these activities will offer the school with an additional opportunity (beyond the school lunch periods) to provide students with healthy and nutritious meals. I would compel districts to design a plan of action, including the appointment of a certified pedagogue to serve as district director of this program; and require the superintendents to evaluate, measure, report on, and hold these “out of school programs” educationally accountable. These programs should be staffed by certified teachers. This should not become a “jobs program” at the expense of the children. (Now I know Republicans are allergic to any type of revenue raising activity, no matter how practical or sensible. But I wonder if a referendum that asked for 1 or 2 dollars from the average Georgia taxpayer would work if the citizens fully understood the many more dollars they are presently paying as a result of academic failure!)

The governor should fully engage his “power to influence”, and his access to a “bully pulpit”!

4) The governor could take a page from a former Republican governor of New York State. When I served as superintendent of the Albany City School District (ACSD), I initiated a district wide literacy program titled: “Readers to Leaders”. This program was actually started when I served as superintendent of CSD 29 in Queens NY. I remembered as a high school principal how hard it was to educate young people who were smart, but could not read a high school textbook. It became clear to me that reading ability was the great “gate-keeper” that was preventing students from succeeding in all subject areas, not just English. Even today when I meet and talk with middle school and high school teachers and administrators “reading skills” is always at the top of the list of their concerns. But back in 2004 the then governor of New York George Pataki agreed and supported “Readers to Leaders”. One part of this project was the establishment of “home libraries” for our title I students in the district. We thought (and it turned out to be right) that if we established these learning “beachheads” in the homes of poor families, we could in effect change the entire education conversation in the city. Governor Pataki issued a statewide directive to all state agencies and departments in the state to volunteer and donate books for this project. Not only were we able to collect over 10,000 brand-new children’s books (for a 10,000 student school district), we were also able to collect along with help from the private sector, an equivalent amount in cash donations. Through the governor’s “power of influence”, we were able to make this program a tremendous success and provided boxes of books and book cases for hundreds of students (and their families) most of whom had a home collection of books for the first time in their lives.

5) The governor can push for legislation to enact a: (kind of “Kill two birds with one stone”)”Tuition-Tutorial plan! College students are presently struggling with the fear and reality of impending tuition debt. The governor can help those schools in desperate need of tutors and classroom teacher assistants, by allowing State University’s: Education-Foreign language-STEM-Art-Music, etc. majors to “work off part of their tuition” (while not penalizing the colleges by holding them budgetarily safe-harmless) by serving as tutors and teacher assistants in struggling schools. The governor, again utilizing his “power of influence” could ask that the non-state private universities also voluntarily participate in this program. I can’t imagine that this program would be unpopular with the electorate! An additional benefit is that you may be able to convince some of those students to consider teaching as a profession, particularly in those chronic staffing shortage areas for most school districts.

6) I think the governor should also ask the state board of education to initiate a major program that would make all students “algebra ready” by the eighth grade. This was another initiative from my CSD 29Q days. The educational “gatekeeping” partner to reading is mathematics; and poor mathematics skills will absolutely negatively affect the student’s ability to learn science. Further we essentially rule out a tremendous list of employment opportunities for students if they are unable to master the conceptual and procedural objectives of the mathematics curriculum. Further, employment forecasts is pointing to a greater need for students regardless of their career choice to be STEM literate. One of the ways we were able to dramatically raise math scores in CSD 29Q was to have elementary teachers “specialize” and focus on teaching either math and science, or English and history (“social studies”) this meant that 2 fourth grade teachers would divide their time teaching those two subject areas to both classes. This “flipping and concentration” of teaching duties, combined with targeted professional development allowed students to be taught mathematics by that teacher who was strongest (and more interested) in that content area. We also (including an early childhood center), assigned a dedicated STEM teachers in all middle schools and elementary schools in need of greater mathematics experiences for the students. These STEM teachers worked out of a state-of-the-art STEM Labs that utilize hands on projects and experiments to teach mathematics concepts. Finally, we had elementary schools organize a daily “mathematics teaching and learning block” for all elementary school students.

Adopting a statewide reading campaign…

7) I know that the concept of a “common core of standards” has fallen on hard times. But the governor should push the state education department to establish a common standard that students exiting middle school should at the very least be able to read a high school textbook. Which means the work must be done before high school. Much of the reason for the “chronically failing” high school label is due to the simple fact that the students simply cannot read, and specifically, cannot read and understand fictional (middle school) literature, mathematical word problems and the questions on standardized exams (i.e. ACT or SAT) a component of “Readers to Leaders” was helpful here. For those struggling middle school readers, (high school principals know so well!) who arrive to high school unable to read or decipher the textbooks are doomed without some kind of intervention. Our Readers to Leaders strategy was to place elementary reading teachers in middle schools who would start working with students in the 6th-8th grades, students who were in reality middle school “pre or beginning-readers”. Sending these “poor-reading” students to high schools “untreated” only leads to the continuation and creation of more consistently failing high schools.

Expand “informal education” opportunities for poor students…

8) A true, real but little-known educational “gap” that exists in our society, is the ability of some children in our nation to gain an advantage by way of parental knowledge and engagement in the parallel (to the formal school education system), informal education system. Meaning the ability to visit museums, cultural institutions, to be involved and have access to: music, art, chess, dance, photography, creative writing, STEM, scouting, non-stereotypical sports; instruction and classes. If the governor wishes to reduce the number of persistently failing schools, then he must expand and support the ability of faith based institutions, cultural institutions, museums, CBO’s and libraries to provide enriching afterschool-weekend learning experiences for young people starting in elementary school. There is a great deal of evidence to suggest that involving a child with a creative learning experience, under the guidance of a teacher/mentor increases the possibility that the child will carry over the discipline and information internalized while pursuing that activity, into the regular school classroom. (Although as a principal I had my stereotypical doubts in the beginning, I came to appreciate and respect, the discipline, focus and academic success, created in part by one of my students dedicated involvement with a formal boxing program at a local athletic youth center!)

Not all Black students are the same… (Not common knowledge in public education!)

9) The governor should encourage the establishment of a statewide strategy to: identify, “rescue”, and programmatically respond to those students of color who attend: “chronically, or occasionally underperforming (or average) performing schools”, but who themselves are “on or above” grade level academic achievement. The danger that is common in most state educational systems is to see all students of color in the context of “deficit”, “gaps” or “underachievement”. The students lose their individual profiles and personalities inside of a school-wide negative achievement designation. Unfortunately for these students, who are often trapped by way of their zip code; this systemic perception predictably creates its own perceived nightmarish academic outcome. The students will over time, be forced to perform far below their true intellectual talent and ability.

If you are going to change a high school, then really change it!

10) I would ask that the governor turn those “chronically failing” high schools into full education/service: “Beacons of Educational Excellence” learning centers! First, give each school a focus, a mission and a theme like: STEM, career technical education (CTE), creative/performing arts, medical science, etc. only really mean it! Which means that all of the schools would need some physical construction intervention, and have access to the necessary resources and equipment to fulfill their mission. All of the schools should be linked to a university and private industry partners. These schools would at the very least need to be “charter like” in hiring, assignments and work schedule. If you don’t match the most effective, skilled and efficacious teachers, with students who are grossly underprepared, struggling academically, badly underperforming, or horribly (in high school) “under-credited”; then any initiative no matter how grand is in danger of failing. I would essentially run the schools from 7 AM to 7 PM six days a week (with breakfast lunch and dinner included). The CTE high school should include a practical on-the-job experience component; including paid summer internships. I would load these schools up with: attendance counselors, clinical-counseling social service support personnel. I would put a full time medical clinic and dental center inside of each of these schools. Make the schools year-round and allow students to earn summer youth employment income as they engage in study-work-study projects for community development in the summer. Allow the students to spend some of their course taking time at one of the nearby HBCUs in places like Atlanta, or 2 and 4 year colleges and universities around the state.

Finally, and I know I am biased here, but these schools need really creative, dynamic, knowledgeable, and thoughtful instructional leaders to serve in the principal’s position. If as the saying goes: “A fish rots from the head down!” An effective school can only be effective if the head of that school is an effective leader. As a superintendent I have come to accept that a school can survive just about anything, except a bad principal. For such a principal, can undermine even the best efforts, of the best teaching staff. And so an important part of the governor’s (or anybody else’s) plan should be the recruitment and training of a really good cadre of principals for these terribly persistent underperforming schools; and then continue to invest in their professional development.