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Gov. Nathan Deal’s signature education legislation this year calls for a constitutional amendment to create a special school district solely for perennially failing schools.
Deal’s office says 141 schools -- more than 60 in metro Atlanta -- currently could land in the proposed district and under state control, having each scored 60 or below for three straight years on Georgia’s annual report card, the College and Career Performance Index (CCRPI).
The state would have unprecedented powers in the "opportunity school district." It could run schools, close them, partner with local school districts to operate them or turn them into charter schools.
The superintendent of the district would report directly to the governor.
Deal acknowledges that it’s a dramatic step and in an interview on Feb. 12 dashed off some statistics to counter those who would say more money is the answer.
"I would say to them that 96 percent of those (failing schools) pay more than the average of the state of $8,400 per child per year, and about 26 percent of them spend considerably more than the state average," the governor said. "If they say that money alone will fix this, then the statistics and the information that we have does not bear that out."
We wondered if the vast majority of these failing schools are, as the governor said, spending more money per student than the average school. We decided to check the governor’s math.
First, a little background. Deal’s proposal would require approval from two-thirds of the General Assembly and would be put before voters in 2016. It would broaden the governor’s powers over K-12 education. Those powers already include the ability to remove dysfunctional local school boards.
Some lawmakers and local school superintendents are against creation of a special school district for failing schools. Critics say that approach creates a one-size-fits-all solution for some very complex problems and fails to recognize how those challenges have been compounded by years of underfunding from the state.
At least one metro school superintendent has suggested that districts with large percentages of low-income students be given more money when the state’s education funding formula is revamped at Deal’s direction in the next year.
Luvenia Jackson, superintendent of Clayton County Schools, said she "applauds the governor for wanting to do more.
"But I don’t know if this is the answer," Jackson said.
Clayton has three of the failing schools and is a federal Title I school system due to of its overall high poverty rate.
"How about restoring some of those (budget) cuts and see what happens," said Jackson, who estimates the district has been underfunded $100 million by the state in the past five years.
"Most of our children come in with a level of readiness below what is required. They need more health care, more counselors, things that must be taken into consideration. We have to nourish the whole child."
Robert Avossa, superintendent of Fulton County Schools, said the governor "is correct to stand up for these communities and shine a bright light" on the problem of failing schools.
Fulton, one of the state’s wealthiest counties, has already started working to bring additional support and resources to its seven failing schools, all located in areas with a multitude of problems, including high mobility, poverty, unemployment and crime, Avossa said.
Through a public-private partnership, the school system raised enough money to offer $20,000 bonuses to recruit 15 experienced and talented teachers to three of the schools this year, he said.
"This is a people problem more than it’s a money problem," Avossa said. "We need flexibility on how we spend our salary dollars to keep the best in the lowest performing schools."
Almost all of the state’s failing schools qualify for Title I federal money because of their high percentages of students from low-income families. Millions more from the state’s Race to the Top grant have targeted failing schools in the past five years.
These schools are a tiny share of Georgia’s 2,267 public schools: 1,321 elementary schools, 480 middle schools and 453 high schools according to the state Department of Education.
Now to the math
Jen Talaber, a Deal spokeswoman, said the governor based his statement on a comparison of a list of the failing schools and a report from the state Department of Education on per pupil spending by district. Information on per pupil spending at the school level is not collected by the state, she said.
"Our operating assumption, because of those data limitations, was that the district per pupil expenditure would apply to the school," Talaber said. "That may not be the case in every district, and we have consistently provided that clarification in all of our conversations."
Ben Scafidi, a nationally recognized expert on the economics of education and a professor of economics at Kennesaw State University, and PolitiFact both independently confirmed that Deal is correct: 96 percent of the schools with three consecutive years of sub-60 CCRPI scores spend above the state average per student expenditure, identified in the DOE report as $8,400.
PolitiFact’s analysis also showed 37 schools with a per pupil expenditure above $10,000, which could fit the governor’s definition of schools spending well above the state average.
Scafidi pointed out: :"We cannot say whether schools with more low income or minority students spend more or less than other schools within their districts."
The reasons, he said, are three-fold: veteran teachers who are higher paid are usually in schools with more white students and fewer lower income students; federal compensatory programs target funds to individual schools with larger portions of low income students; and federal and state programs target funds to special needs students.
Our conclusion; Gov. Nathan Deal is pushing a constitutional amendment to create an "opportunity school district" that would give his office and the state broad powers over failing schools.
Last week, the governor cited statistics indicating that 96 percent of the failing schools spend more per student than the state average and 26 percent spend well above the state’s average per student expenditure of $8,400. His statement is accurate and relies on student spending per district in the absence of actual school-level data.
His statement doesn’t point out that the failing schools are likely spending more money because they are receiving more money as a result of having high concentrations of students from low-income families.
It could be argued that the money they receive and spend isn’t working -- afterall, they are failing schools by the state’s current measure of success, the CCRPI index. Or it could be said that they need more money or a different kind of help, or both.
That’s important context in a discussion of what those closest to the ground -- the educators -- say is a very complex problem. For that reason, we rate the governor’s statement Half True.
"Deal unveils Opportunity School District legislation," Governor’s website, Feb. 11, 2015
"Divide previews schools battle: Governor’s plan has state taking control of struggling school districts. Dems to county with ‘community concepts." By Greg Bluestein and Eric Stirgus, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Feb. 13, 2015
Interview with Robert Avossa, superintendent, Fulton County Schools
Interview with Luvenia Jackson, superintendent of Clayton County Schools
interview with Jen Talaber, spokeswoman for Gov. Nathan Deal
Email with Ben Scafidi, a nationally recognized expert on the economics of education and a professor of economics at Kennesaw State University
Analysis of list of state failing schools and DOE data on per student spending
AJC staffers Lois Norder and Jeff Ernsthausen assisted in the research for this fact-check.
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