Right Cause, Wrong Method? Examining the Politics of State Takeover in Georgia

By Richard O. Welsh (New York University), Sheneka Williams (University of Georgia), Shafiqua Little (University of Georgia), and Jerome Graham (University of Georgia)

There is widespread agreement among educational stakeholders on the urgency of school improvement. Educational actors ranging from policymakers, educators, parents to non-profit organizations and corporations insist that the public school system has failed too many underprivileged children and improving struggling schools is a central challenge in public education.

In recent years, school takeover using state-run school districts is an increasingly popular school improvement strategy. Consistently under-performing schools are being taken over and placed under the jurisdiction of a state-run district typically controlled by the governor. A growing number of states are using state-run school districts (e.g., Louisiana, Tennessee, and Michigan), in the process of creating a statewide turnaround district or are in the preparatory stages of takeover.

The transfer of schools away from local school board tends to be accompanied by market-based reforms which are well-supported by non-profit and philanthropic organizations as well as individual funders. Increasing attention to the role of interest groups and their impact on the policy-making process has highlighted the growing role of out-of-state actors in state and local school board elections. Less attention has been paid to the role interest groups play in the creation of statewide turnaround districts. Given the growing prominence of this school improvement strategy, it is important to gain a richer understanding of the role that interest groups play in the creation of statewide turnaround districts.

We use Georgia as a case study to gain a better understanding of the politics of education surrounding school takeover by a state-run district. In 2015 the state legislature passed Governor Deal’s plan to create the Opportunity School District (OSD), a state-run district that would takeover persistently under-performing schools. If placed in the OSD, schools can either be: closed, converted to charters, or have its’ teachers and principal re-staffed. In November 2016, Georgians voted on a constitutional amendment to empower the state to take over failing public schools and place them in the OSD. The amendment, however, lost by a considerable margin – 60% no votes to 40% yes votes – thus paving the way for a contentious battle on school improvement going forward that has national policy implications. Georgia provides an instructive case to examine the coalitions of interest groups for and against state turnaround districts and the alignment of these groups with charter schools. We analyze the supporting and opposing coalitions as well as the alignment between state takeover and charter schools in the campaign for the constitutional amendment to create a statewide turnaround district.

Competing Coalitions

Our findings show that corporate interests, the governor, and non-profit organizations supported state takeover whereas educators, parents and community organizations opposed state takeover. There was bipartisan support across coalitions and a crisscrossing of interests regarding local control and the path to school improvement. The diversification of interest groups seen in state and local board elections is also evident in the campaign to create a statewide turnaround district. Our results illustrate that the coalition opposing state takeover was dominated by local grassroots organizations, school boards, and individual actors directly connected to Georgia. There were also a few national organizations outside of Georgia involved in the campaign on both sides.

We found high degrees of congruence between those supporting the OSD and charter schools. For instance, the coalition of the governor, non-profit organizations and corporate interests supported charter school expansion and endorsed the OSD. On the opposite end, the coalition against the OSD tended to, most often, oppose charter school expansions. Our results also indicate that while the majority of actors who opposed the OSD and charter school expansion, about a third opposed the OSD, but support charter schools or have remained publicly neutral indicating increasingly nuanced positions among interest groups. Overall, the results also illustrate how polarizing state takeover and charter schools are in education policy circles.

The results suggest that those who supported the OSD coalesce around similar values for education reform. Ultimately, it appears that the educational values that partly determines whether one supports or opposes the OSD and charter schools are whether one perceives education as better suited decentralized or centralized (the importance of local control) and whether one opposes the privatization of public education (disposition to market-based reforms).

High-stakes Contests

Although lobbying is generally regarded as influential in Washington D.C., the increase of lobbying-like tendencies in local elections and campaigns for education-related constitutional amendments suggest that state and local politics of education may also be a playground for powerful interest groups. Yet, the presence of local grassroots organizations likely played an important role in the opposing camp’s ability to convince voters against state takeover. Simply put, the coalition most effectively able to reach local voters will likely have important ramifications for the success of state takeovers.

The findings from Georgia offer several lessons for the more than thirty states that have provisions to take over districts, individual schools or both.

There will likely be similarities in arguments and actors, thus the battle of school takeover may pit parents and educators against governors and business interests, with “outsiders” on both sides. Similar to market-based reforms, it is conceivable that many of the national actors involved in either the opposition or supporting camps will be constant across state lines.

Undoubtedly, the campaign will lead to tension and irreparable harm among a broad spectrum of key stakeholders in K-12 education. School takeover is extremely polarizing with coalitions investing sizable funds to negatively characterize their opponents’ position on state takeover.

The role of local control is a nuanced and decisive factor in whether state takeover garners the broad support necessary for successful constitutional amendments. There appears to be a consensus that local control is important for transparency and community involvement, however, opponents of state takeover also posit that school improvement policy should support the efforts of teachers, community members, and parents, rather than usurp them. Hashing out the details of the role of local control will vary across contexts and is a key element of the school improvement debate.

Read the UAR article here.

Photo by Shubham Sharan on Unsplash

Author Biographies

Richard O. Welsh is Assistant Professor of Educational Leadership and Policy Studies at New York University. His research focuses on the economics of education, K-12 education policy and international comparative education.

Sheneka Williams is an Associate Professor of Educational Administration and Policy at the University of Georgia. Her research examines issues of equity as it relates to students’ educational opportunities in both urban and rural contexts. 

Shafiqua Little is a PhD student in the Educational Administration and Policy department at the University of Georgia. Her research focuses on K-12 education policy, charter schools and school discipline.

Jerome Graham is a PhD student in the Education Administration and Policy department at the University of Georgia. His research focuses on social and emotional learning, K-12 education policy, and policy implementation at the local, state, and federal levels.

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