The results from Georgia— Victory in the Battle Against a State Takeover District
by Bertis Downs – Athens, GA parent and Network for Public Education Board Member and Janet Kishbaugh – Atlanta, GA parent and Public Education Matters- Georgia Member
For those of us who support public education, a real bright spot in the November 2016 election was the defeat of Amendment 1 in Georgia. Amendment 1 proposed to allow the state to create a state-wide “Opportunity School District” (OSD) that would take over and privatize so-called “failing schools,” patterned after similar districts in Louisiana, Tennessee and Michigan.
The Amendment was backed by dark money from wealthy education reformers and companies seeking to do business in Georgia, all hidden behind a legal structure created at the Governor’s behest. The ballot measure itself was so deceptively worded that the opposition filed a class action suit on behalf of all Georgia voters claiming it effectively disenfranchised voters. From the start, it was clear that if the tricky ballot language was all voters read and knew when they entered the voting booth, we would lose badly.
The early polling showed that the language sounded great to most people, but the law wasn’t great for those who support democratically-accountable public schools. So our task for months was to relentlessly inform people of the real facts of the saccharinely-worded preamble and amendment that talked about “improving student performance” and “increasing community involvement.” The proposal would have taken over high-poverty, minority schools; silencing parents and community members in unprecedented ways.
Amendment 1 represented such an extraordinary power grab that a very effective and organized opposition formed and began working together in earnest more than a year ago. The coalition included a diverse group of organizations and individuals from across the state: teachers’ groups like the Georgia Association of Educators (GAE), the Georgia Federation of Teachers (GFT) and the Professional Association of Georgia Educators (PAGE); parent organizations like the Georgia PTA; community organizations like Concerned Black Clergy, the NAACP, and Public Education Matters Georgia; and official and unofficial social media groups including T.R.A.G.I.C. and Better Georgia.
To show the diversity of the group, on the day that the Vote “NO” yard signs were made available, the first two phone calls requesting them in bulk came from a Democratic committee chair and from a tea party official.
The coalition became the campaign to Keep Georgia Schools Local. The goal was to turn “no-information” or “low-information” voters into “more-information voters.” 53 local school boards adopted resolutions in opposition to the Amendment. Throughout the state, community leaders from across political, racial and cultural lines focused on ensuring that local communities were well informed about the real and damaging affects the proposed state takeover would have on our schools, our districts and our teachers, and the mission of teaching and learning that goes on in our schools every day.
The grassroots efforts were wildly successful. We won 60% to 40%. Of 159 counties in Georgia, we won in all but seven. People want to support, preserve and improve their community’s public schools. We got the word out and in so doing, we not only defeated Amendment 1 but also set in motion a working group of allies to address, educate and activate our various constituencies on issues that could harm or set back the progress made in public education in Georgia.
The real challenge now is to maintain the cohesion and focus of our joint efforts. It is clear that when Georgia voters, regardless of their political or ideological perspective, are given clear information about their schools and the education of their children and Georgia’s future leaders, they do the right thing.
As we approach a new legislative session, we are already working to build on this success. We hear talk of a lame-duck governor who is now motivated to retaliate against teachers and districts who opposed his state takeover idea— but he will have to get the legislature to play along with him, and maybe the OSD fight has helped them understand a few lessons about their constituents.
Rumors are swirling about the various bills affecting education that will be introduced by the governor and his reformer allies: vouchers, education savings accounts, remaking the state’s never fully-funded methods of funding our schools and any number of “choice everywhere” proposals. As the education reformers line up behind those ideas and double down on their investments in Georgia by injecting even more money into the state’s political process in an attempt to influence legislative votes, we will all be there as a coalition ready to remind the legislators that the Governor’s last, big, legacy-forming idea, the OSD, didn’t do so well with voters. We will let legislators know that those same voters will be watching and are ready to fight to protect public education in Georgia.
The most exciting outcome of the election is that the new grassroots movement supports and will advocate to improve struggling public schools by relying on evidence-based, research-driven programs. We have the opportunity to get Community Schools legislation enacted, thus putting in place a program with a proven track record of creating a positive impact for struggling schools, students and communities.
For the first time in Georgia, a coalition of grassroots supporters of public education will advocate for programs that promote the nutritional and physical health of students and communities; positive professional development of teachers and leaders; and in class and wrap-around services that help all students grow and flourish. The Amendment 1 battle of the 2016 election really has turned out to be a bright moment for Georgia’s students and voters.