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Tanner bill for failing schools passes House
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A bill that is expected to help turn around low-performing schools in Georgia passed last week in a 138-37 vote by the Georgia House of Representatives.

House Bill 338 was presented by Rep. Kevin Tanner, R-Dawsonville, who has been working on the bill as an alternative to the failed Opportunity School District amendment in the fall.

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 be in charge of going into failing schools and helping them set up plans for improvement.

The Education Advisory Council would be made up 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 and the president of the Georgia Parent Teacher Association.

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 go in and 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.

Grants from the Governor's Office of Student Achievement, as well as the potential of $7 million a year in tax credits if a separate bill, House Bill 272, passes the Senate, could help fund programs to help these schools and their students improve.

Tanner 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.

"The Opportunity School District would have allowed the state to come in and physically take over a school system," Tanner said. "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."

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.

Tanner presented an amended version of HB 338 on the House floor on March 1. House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams, D-Atlanta, and Education Committee Chairman Brooks Coleman, R-Duluth, spoke in favor of the bill which will move on to the Senate for a final vote.

"I take very seriously the question of low performing schools because we're not talking about buildings, we're talking about the future of our children," Abrams said. "This time two years ago I stood in this well and voiced very strong opposition to the Opportunity School District. I did not question the intent of the bill, because every one of us wants children to succeed... what we did with [OSD] was to strip power from local school districts and to provide a prescription without a diagnosis. We were giving power away without having any accountability, any investment and I thought it was the wrong direction for this state. The bill we are debating today is not [OSD]."

Coleman also urged the members of the House to vote in favor of the bill and praised Tanner's work to bring the bill before the House.

"In my 25 years in this House, never have I seen a representative work as hard as Chairman Tanner worked," Coleman said. "Never have I seen as many organizations involved...he wore me out meeting with all of these organizations. He listened, he met, he Tanner said [HB 338] is not perfect, it is not the silver bullet- it is a start."

Rep. Dewey McClain, D-Lawrenceville, spoke in opposition of the bill, calling it OSD in high heels and lipstick.

"There were 152 counties out of 159 [that] turned down OSD. The people spoke. When the people spoke I guess we should listen," McClain said. "This [bill] is OSD with a dress, with lipstick, with high heels... but it is still OSD."

The bill needed 91 votes to win. With the majority of the House in favor of the bill, Tanner hopes that the legislation will be able to bridge the gap this year between not only Republicans and Democrats but between school systems and the state.

"One of the conversations we heard and the complaints we heard with OSD was that the education community was not engaged- that cannot be said about this process," Tanner said. "They've been engaged from the beginning."