Georgia Education Officials Look to New Orleans School Model for Inspiration

Published March 17, 2015

Georgia education leaders face a dilemma mirrored in many states nationwide: Too many schools are failing too many students.

Nearly 150 public schools in Georgia, excluding alternative, special education, and nontraditional schools, were deemed failing between 2012 and 2014, scoring below 60 out of 100 on the College and Career Performance Index for three consecutive years.

Although Georgia has implemented additional accountability measures in the past two decades, they have had little effect in turning around failing schools, all of which are located in high-poverty areas. School officials spent approximately $100 million on turnaround efforts at 40 failing schools since 2013, but a state analysis conducted in 2014 indicates there has been little or no improvement. Some schools have even regressed.

Expensive Turnaround Failures

Turnaround efforts are notoriously ineffective and costly, but some states have found success in overhauling entire districts, lifting school zones to allow students to attend their school of choice, and decentralizing decision-making to local control, according to research by school choice advocates. 

Georgia education officials are looking to neighboring states’ successes, particularly in Louisiana and Tennessee, with the goal of adding a reform movement to the governor’s education agenda.

Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal (R) says he hopes to reuse and reinvent the Opportunity School District (OSD) method New Orleans adopted and began to build just before Hurricane Katrina destroyed the city’s schools in 2005. 

“While Georgia boasts many schools that achieve academic excellence every year, we still have too many schools where students have little hope of attaining the skills they need to succeed in the workforce or in higher education,” Deal said. “We have a moral duty to do everything we can to help these children. Failing schools keep the cycle of poverty spinning from one generation to the next. Education provides the only chance for breaking that cycle. When we talk about helping failing schools, we’re talking about rescuing children. I stand firm on the principle that every child can learn, and I stand equally firm in the belief that the status quo isn’t working.”

Replicating Success

“New Orleans is an urban district where almost all of the schools are being run in nontraditional, nonconventional ways,” said Kevin Kane, president of the Pelican Institute for Public Policy. “I think it’s difficult to replicate the New Orleans model if you’re not doing something as comprehensive as what’s been done here. Having 40 schools in one city that have exited the old system is just a different dynamic than 40 schools scattered around the state.”

Kane says the principles of accountability, giving students more choice and freedom, and allowing schools to operate with greater autonomy and allowing them to replace teachers who don’t perform, have worked across Louisiana and can be replicated elsewhere.

The Center on Reinventing Public Education (CRPE) recently published a report on the success of New Orleans’ public education system improvement measures.

“The basic tenets that New Orleans tried to do are things a lot of other cities are [replicating] on a smaller scale,” said Robin Lake, the director of CRPE. “Certainly from a state takeover perspective, other states have done something similar to the [Recovery School District] governance model. The best example is probably Tennessee. Early results in Tennessee and New Orleans are looking pretty good. … They seem to be committed to continuous improvement.”

“You’re talking about creating a system that warrants real accountability,” Kane said. “That’s the first critical step, and I think that’s what Georgia is doing.”

‘A Targeted Approach’

“This is a targeted approach,” said Jen Talaber, Deal’s communications director. “The Opportunity School District would take in no more than 20 schools per year, meaning it would govern no more than 100 at any given time. Schools would stay in the district for no less than five years but no more than 10 years.”

Ninety-six percent of the districts with eligible schools currently spend at or above the state’s average per pupil cost of $8,400, and a quarter of all eligible schools are in districts that spend significantly more.

Deal’s plan would create an extra fund to direct money to “innovative and wrap-around service programs” in OSD schools, according to an OSD plan document.

According to a document Deal published summarizing the OSD implementation, the OSD would act with the authority of a Georgia Local Education Agency, with a governor-appointed superintendent, and operate under the Office of Student Achievement.

If passed into law, implementation would begin as early as the 2017–18 school year.

“We are still looking it over and learning more about it,” said Matt Cardoza, director of communications for the Georgia Department of Education.

Cardoza says it is likely the Office of Student Achievement, specifically named in the bill, will play a larger role than the state’s Department of Education (DOE). 

Deal and Georgia DOE Superintendent Richard Woods plan to travel to New Orleans to see the system firsthand.

“I would like nothing more than for the need for the Opportunity School District to decline every year; that would show our reforms are working,” Deal said. “But everyone, regardless of where they stand on this issue, can agree that today there is a need. We know from other states, such as Louisiana and Tennessee, that these programs can produce positive results for students and communities.”

Ashley Bateman ([email protected]) writes from Alexandria, Virginia.

Image by Thomas Favre-Bulle.