Governor Nathan Deal is working hard to sell the Georgia electorate on voting in favor of OSD. That is the Opportunity School District constitutional amendment proposal on the ballot in November authorizing “the state to step in to assist chronically failing public schools and rescue children languishing in them.”
He recently made a strong pitch to a group of 29 African American faith leaders from across the state, but it may have backfired. That’s the considered opinion of at least one of the preachers attending the afternoon briefing on September 15th.
Rev. Chester Ellis, the 67-year-old pastor of St. Paul Missionary Baptist Church in Savannah says Gov, Deal convened the meeting because he was looking for our support. “I need your help,” Deal reportedly told the ministers in a secret session where no members of the media were allowed. But apparently it didn’t turn out that way.
“Because we left with more questions than we had answers,” Rev. Ellis says. “It truly is a takeover and I don’t think a lot of the citizens know exactly the extent of the takeover.”
He continues, “I was disappointed because I thought the Governor would be able to lay out his plan in detail to us. But, what I got from the Governor is that he’s playing Indiana Jones, which means he’s making it up as he goes. There’s really no plan. A whole lot of it is guesswork.”
Leo Smith, Minority Engagement Director for the Georgia Republican Party, recruited the pastors to this OSD roundtable confab.
“Governor Deal understands that the Black church is like the community center in the Black community,” he says. “He understands that their voice and their access to people in the Black community are important so he uses African American pastors as one of his main listening sessions, sound boards and feedback groups for policy initiatives.
“I think that education is tore up from the floor up when it comes to Black Americans in urban environments,” Smith adds. “You can’t get much worse than what we’ve got, so disrupt it and deconstruct it and rebuild it. This gives us an opportunity to do that.”
Verdallia Turner, president of the Georgia Federation of Teachers, vehemently disputes Smith’s assertion.
“If Amendment One was about education, we could at least hold a logical discussion about evidence based on solutions,” Turner says. “But it is not about education and there is no plan or roadmap within the Senate bill which is based upon the improvement of schools.
“The Governor is a lame duck, yet he’s asking citizens to trust him blindly and give him all the power over their schools, public property, pocketbooks and children,” she adds incredulously. “This is really about access to money via new rules and power. It’s that simple.”
Marvin L. Winans, the Grammy-winning artist of the famed ‘Winans’ gospel group, who has a charter school in Detroit, was the first to speak with the assembled preachers. The Marvin L. Winans Academy of the Performing Arts began in 1997. It started with grades K-5 and 248 students and one grade was added every year until the school reached 12th grade.
“Marvin talked about why he had established his Academy in Detroit and why he thought it was a good idea that the Governor was willing to do something to help failing schools,” Rev. Ellis reports. “We didn’t have a chance to ask him any questions.”
The Governor followed with a brief spiel about why he thought he needed to take over the schools and why the Black clergymen needed to be in support of OSD. He then opened the session up to questions.
Rev. Ellis was the first to query Gov. Deal. “What is the student to teacher ratio per class of all the schools on the list of failing schools?” he asked. “Of course he said he did not have the answer to that question.”
Ellis says the reason he asked that question is because research tells us that ideal pupil/teacher ratio should be 18 to 1, and the further you go past that recommended ratio, the more you are setting students up for failure.
“The governor said he needed to do more research on that, so I invited him to do that.” Ellis says. “I gave him some websites he could Google.”
Ellis’s second question was, “Are all the schools that are having trouble in the state of Georgia predominately African American schools?”
He says he was told “not so much but that when they looked at schools that were failing they looked at schools that were in a cluster, and that we were invited more for being in that cluster of schools.”
One of Ellis’ colleagues, sitting at a table with him, asked Gov. Deal for “the specifics of the plan.” Deal reportedly replied that he was using different models, and two of the models he mentioned were the so-called Louisiana turnaround model and the Tennessee turnaround model. But the question was then raised about both of those state’s dropping those school plans because they failed to accomplish their achievement goals.
“We are going to look at what they did wrong, and correct their mistakes so that ours will be right,” the ministers were reportedly told by the governor.
“You know, we have to do something,” Rev. Ellis says he and the assembled pastors were told by Gov. Deal. “We are willing to try this and then if it doesn’t work, we are willing to work on what doesn’t work and straighten it out.”
The Governor says OSD is a “plan in the works”, Ellis alleges. He then urged the Governor to use Massachusetts as a model rather than one from Tennessee or Louisiana that have both failed.
According to a recent article in Education Week by scholars at the Atlanta-based Southern Education Foundation and Philadelphia-based Research in Action organization some states are proposing to mimic “opportunity school district” takeover schemes despite evidence that prototypes of these schemes have gone awry in Tennessee and Louisiana. Imitating these models, they say, is “not an appropriate prescription for the challenging work of providing individualized support for schools that need it.”
“Massachusetts put their’s in place; the educators and the legislators met together and said what do our children need to know, when do they need to know and how is the best way to get them to know it,” according to Rev. Ellis. “They set out on a course working together and didn’t change course until they got the results they were striving for. They are now one of the better school systems in the country. Why don’t we model after that kind of success?”
Gov. Deal reportedly replied, “It’s because of demographics.” Clearly Massachusetts doesn’t look like Georgia, Ellis opines. I said, “Education has nothing to do with demographics. Education has to do with being able to know and understand what you are working with.”
While Rev. Ellis was peppering Gov. Deal with questions, so too were other ministers passionately participating in this highbrow roundtable discussion.
“Too many times I heard him say, we are either working on that or I don’t know, except to say that what we do know is what we’ve been doing is not working so we’ve got to try something else,” Ellis ruefully reports during a 45 minute telephone interview. “I thanked the Governor for inviting me but I told him before I left there are too many uncertainties and too many unanswered questions to go before even my congregation and say we should support this. I’m not comfortable with the answers I heard that day and the solutions that were given for our failing schools.”
Chester Ellis is the pastor of a nearly 200 member Savannah congregation, who is also extremely versed and involved in public education. He says he has spent more than 30 years in the Chatham County public school system. He is no rookie, nor uninformed when it comes to OSD issues and concerns. In recent years Ellis has unsuccessfully sought election to the school board and chairman of the Savannah-Chatham County Public Schools Board of Education.
“Besides that I have worked from 2006 until now with the high school I graduated from. That’s Woodville Tompkins,” he reveals. “For the last two years, Woodville-Tompkins Technical and Career High School has had a 100 percent graduation rate. They’ve also been cited as being one of the top 30 programs worldwide in robotics. Yes, I am an educator at heart. There is a way to turn schools around and it doesn’t require a constitutional amendment. I don’t see the need. I just think it takes a little elbow grease and total involvement from parents, community and legislators to help our failing schools.”
The pulpit orator continues, “I don’t buy the Governor’s program; they are looking for a quick fix. It takes dedication and elbow grease to get things turned around. I think the Governor has some friends who see education as a carte blanche card; something they can make money off of. It’s about the money, not about the children. The legislation doesn’t even define what a failing school is. I think right thinking people see this as a blatant money venture and that’s what is driving the Governor. It’s about the money rather than about the children.”
Rev. Ellis was anxiously anticipating being convinced and compelled to campaign for the passage of Amendment One. That did not happen, and that could be a telling point with regard to the up or down vote on this important, and multi-million dollar vote impacting Georgia’s students, families, politics and future. Some argue that this is the most significant issue on the November ballot for Georgia voters.
“If you are asking me about the overall consensus that I got in there, I think more of us left with more skepticism, than the skepticism we brought in,” Rev. Ellis opines. “I heard no facts, no plans.”