By signing Senate Bill 79, Gov. Nathan Deal has given himself authority to suspend school board members in any district that has lost or is in serious danger of losing its accreditation.
Say, for example, a certain embattled school board in a certain capital city with a certain investigation underway involving alleged cheating by teachers and administrators?
Yup, that very one.
Deal says he hopes never to have to use that authority, and there’s no reason to doubt his sincerity. Stripping duly elected public officials of the power given them by voters ought to be a last resort, and as a rule, governors don’t like to get involved in school board politics. For those and other reasons, the legislation is a purely symbolic statement of state concern about the way the Atlanta School Board has conducted itself.
But if necessary, it could become something more. The new law, if approved by the U.S. Justice Department, would also allow Deal to appoint temporary board members to carry out the duties of those who were suspended.
Certainly, the legislation was a better option than the other idea being kicked around at the Capitol, which was to hand control of Atlanta schools to Mayor Kasim Reed. Conditions in the district are not dire enough to justify such a drastic step, and Reed, for all his ability, has enough on his plate running the city and serving as the state’s ombudsman to the Obama administration in Washington.
In fact, the mayor might have thought twice about the wisdom of extending his mandate to education after witnessing the career arc of Adrian Fenty, the young, reform-minded mayor of Washington. Elected in 2006, Fenty demanded and soon got the power to run the troubled D.C. school system, but the backlash eventually cost him re-election and perhaps a once-promising political career.
To take the parallel a step farther, the reformist reputations of Fenty and the chancellor he appointed, Michelle Rhee, have recently been called into question by evidence of widespread cheating by teachers and administrators on standardized tests in the D.C. district. Like Beverly Hall, her counterpart in Atlanta, Rhee relied heavily on those tests both as a tool in operating the system and in demonstrating progress to a skeptical public.
“Her theory seemed to be that if she pushed incentives and sanctions hard enough, the scores would rise,” education expert Diane Ravich wrote. “Her theory was right, the scores did rise, but they didn’t represent genuine learning. She incentivized desperate behavior in principals and teachers trying to save their jobs and meet their targets and comply with their boss’ demands.”
Does that seems oddly familiar?
In the end, the outcome of Atlanta’s as-yet unresolved cheating scandal and the hiring of a new superintendent this summer will have a much larger impact on the education of its students than the passing dysfunctions of its school board. In fact, the board’s reluctance to supervise Hall and to force an honest investigation into cheating allegations represented a much more important failure than its backbiting and bickering.
With the school year coming to a close, it would be nice to be able to close the books on that failure and look forward. The threatened loss of accreditation and the bill signed by the governor ought to suffice to keep the board focused. The imminent departure of Hall and the selection of a replacement offer still more opportunity to look ahead.
Unfortunately, the uncompleted state investigation — a probe that was launched last August, eight months ago now — makes that impossible. That probe was begun by the governor’s office, and its report is overdue. Investigators have suggested that criminal charges are possible, and building such cases can take time. But at this point, with educations at stake, pursuing charges is less critical than identifying the problems quickly and fixing them.
– Jay Bookman