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Amended bill for failing schools passes Senate, House
Gov. Deal expected to sign bill into law
A-Education Bill Deal mug
Gov. Nathan Deal. - photo by For the Dawson County News

Last Thursday marked the 40th and final day of the 2017 Georgia General Assembly, during which a flurry of bills headed to Gov. Nathan Deal's office to be vetoed or become law.

Included in the bills that Deal now has less than 40 days to sign, Rep. Kevin Tanner's House Bill 338, an education overhaul for failing schools, passed the Senate with amendments on March 24.

The amended bill was then approved by the House on March 28 in a 133-36 vote, compared to the first House vote of 138-37 on March 1, which took the bill to the Senate.

The bill is now titled the "First Priority Act - Helping Turnaround Schools Put Students First," and is what Tanner, R-Dawsonville, has deemed an alternative to the overwhelmingly defeated Opportunity School District amendment in the fall.

A major difference between the OSD and First Priority Act is that the new legislation does not require a constitutional amendment, and therefore no voter approval, for the bill to become law.

Tanner has said many times that the new bill is not OSD, though it has drawn its fair share of critics for being too similar to the amendment that was defeated by 60 percent of voters in Georgia.

The legislation, as Tanner has described it, attempts to incentivize local school systems to cooperate with the state to help their schools get better as well as hold them accountable.

There are around 153 schools in the state that have been identified as failing according to Tanner, and the bill would work to address the lowest performing of those schools first.

The bill would create an Education Advisory Council that would be in charge of hiring a chief turnaround officer. The chief turnaround officer, or CTO, would be a salaried employee of the state who would go into failing schools to help them set up plans for improvement.

The council would also take input from the state superintendent on whom the CTO should be, but the CTO would not answer to the superintendent directly.

The CTO assigns turnaround coaches, who along with the CTO and local RESA would analyze the school to find out why it is not being successful.

A report would be given to the school system, and based on that the CTO and school administration would create a specific student improvement plan.

One of the Senate's amendments to the bill was to increase the time schools have to implement the changes in the improvement plan, and schools now have three years instead of two.

If schools are still not participating after three years, the CTO can step in and require one or more interventions, which include but are not limited to enforcing the student improvement plan, removal of school personnel, complete reconstitution of the school in which all personnel are removed and a new principal and all new staff are hired, implementation of a state charter school and operation of the school by a private nonprofit third-party selected by the local board of education.

The Senate also added four new members to the now 11-member Education Turnaround Advisory Council, which reports to the State Board of Education.

The additions are two education leaders appointed by the Lieutenant Governor and two education leaders appointed by the Speaker of the House of Representatives.

The advisory council will also consist of the executive directors of the Georgia School Boards Association; the Georgia School Superintendents Association; the Professional Association of Georgia Educators; the Georgia Association of Educators, the Georgia Association of Educational Leaders; Educators First; as well as the president of the Georgia Parent Teacher Association.

Tanner has said that under HB 338, if a school refuses to implement what is laid out in its student improvement plan, the worst thing that could happen to that school is that it would lose its flexibility waiver.

According to Tanner, flexibility in performance contracts has been in place since 2000 and allows schools to waive certain requirements from the state board of education. This saves schools money, and could help to incentivize cooperation.

"The Opportunity School District would have allowed the state to come in and physically take over a school system," Tanner said March 1. "This bill does not do that and cannot do that. Everything in this legislation is geared toward a mutually agreed upon flexibility contract between the local school district, the local school board and the state board of education here in Georgia."

The bill also creates a joint study committee on the establishment of a state accreditation process, as well as a joint study committee on the establishment of a leadership academy, which could potentially "provide opportunities for principals and other school leaders to update and expand their leadership knowledge and skills."

Tanner said on Monday that he appreciates the local and state education leaders that have worked with him for several months on the First Priority Act.

"I was thankful to see the legislation receive final passage with strong bipartisan support and head to the Governor's desk," Tanner said.

Tanner also said he is confident Deal will sign the bill into law.

"I'm looking forward to being in attendance when he does," Tanner said. "However, I am most looking forward to seeing positive changes in our low performing schools as a result of this team effort."