Originally created 11/29/97

Proposal aimed at evaluating schools



ATLANTA -- When hurricanes strike or floods swamp towns, the government and disaster relief groups send in professionals to assess the damage and help rebuild hard-hit areas.

That's kind of the idea behind a new proposal by lawmakers to rebuild Georgia schools that have been classified as failing.

"We've been talking about failing schools for years," noted Senate Education Chairman Richard Marable, D-Rome, a teacher. "We know who they are, and what are we doing? The same old thing."

Mr. Marable is behind a plan to budget $2 million during the upcoming legislative session to create pilot "care teams" that would go into failing schools and work on whatever is needed, from reading to community support.

However, supporters will have to convince the people who run local systems and cherish independence from the state that the "care teams" aren't coming to take over their schools.

"Local school systems would have to be comfortable with that kind of assistance," said Gary Ashley of the Georgia School Boards Association. "This is a tricky one."

It's tricky because state and local politicians have been clamouring for "local control" of schools for years. And because, at the same time, state takeovers of bad schools have been on the rise across the country, especially in urban areas.

Since New Jersey took over the Jersey City school system in 1989 under a first-of-its-kind "academic bankruptcy" law, states have increasingly considered such drastic remedies to correct everything from poor academics to financial mismanagement.

More than 20 states have laws allowing them to take over bad-performing schools or districts, according to the Education Commission of the States.

However, during a conference on the state's role in improving urban schools earlier this year, government officials urged caution.

Illinois Superintendent Joseph A. Spagnolo Jr. said states pursue takeovers "like a dog chasing a car. Once a dog catches it, he's not sure what he's going to do with it."

Republican lawmakers proposed similar takeover statutes in Georgia earlier this decade -- aimed primarily at troubled Atlanta schools -- but the measures quickly wilted.

The same schools generally wind up near the bottom of statewide rankings each year in Georgia. Usually they are inner-city schools populated with students from poor families.

"Failed" schools are easier than ever to quantify in Georgia because at least three groups, including the state Department of Education, now put out annual report cards detailing everything from national test scores and dropout statistics to campus crime rates.

Mr. Marable, who knows the rankings well, wants an initial $2 million to create four pilot "care teams."

The teams would include top educators and administrators -- paid for by the Department of Education.

Mr. Marable said the teams would be dispatched only where they are requested so as not to give the appearance the state is taking over a school.

The way he envisions it, the teams would recruit retired teachers, volunteers and the business community to help rebuild the "failed" school.

"We're going to take our schools one at a time that have a reputation for not making standards of performance and bring them up," he said. "As we would in a flood area, as we would in an emergency area, we all pull together to make it better. I think we could change the course of that school."

However, for the plan to work, local school superintendents and elected school board members would have to admit they have a "failed" school on their hands, and ask for help.

Mr. Marable hopes if the state creates the program, they will.

"I think every system would say, `I've got one of those,' " he said. "Boards are saying that now. We're not taking over. We're there to assist. We're there to improve. What I envision is boards are going to welcome that help."

Mr. Ashley said schools would welcome help and expertise, but oppose any attempt by the state to impose its will.

"An approach on a collaborative basis, where this is being received on good faith ... it might have some possibilities," Mr. Ashley said. "Any takeover or any punitive or any aggressive action I think would be a failure, frankly.

"You'd have to pick the teams carefully. If you start sending in personnel, who are they, are they certified, are they qualified to do what is proposed? This is really not an easy approach."

But Mr. Marable, who has run the plan by state education groups, argued lawmakers and school officials have known for years which schools are failing academically without doing enough about it. He figures his "care teams" are worth a try, considering the alternative.

"It's better than us sitting around doing nothing on the schools we've been talking about," he said.