How politics doomed a struggling-schools program in Georgia

Elementary children in a classroom

Elementary children in a classroom. (Credit: iStock)

Aug 13, 2021
Key Points
  • Program for thousands of struggling students caves in three years.
  • Tension built between program leader and state schools chief.
  • Audit targets consultant fees and spotty oversight.

Thousands of struggling students in Georgia have lost a tax-funded program meant to boost their test scores and graduation rates.

In its brief lifespan, Georgia’s Chief Turnaround Office tapped a team of in-house education specialists and outside contractors to work on shaping up some of the lowest five percent of the state’s public schools. They fanned out to 21 struggling schools from Savannah to the Alabama state line, encompassing nearly 10,000 students.

Many in Georgia’s education sphere trace the program’s demise to its roots in the state legislature in 2017, when lawmakers crafted the program as a largely stand-alone office answerable to the state Board of Education, but not to Woods’ department. Others pin more blame on the program’s leader, Eric Thomas, who weathered strife from some staff within his program who bristled under his leadership, eventually prompting a handful of lawsuits and a whistleblower complaint that sparked the damaging state audit.

School officials, education advocates and some of the office’s former staff all agree the goal to boost performance for thousands of students in struggling schools across Georgia remains critically important, regardless of whether lawmakers create a special program for it.

In this five-part story, State Affairs explores the creation of the Chief Turnaround Office, what factors led to its closing and how the future looks going forward for improving Georgia’s struggling schools.

Struggling schools list infographic
Struggling schools in Georgia are identified according to certain “lists” that qualify those schools for federal aid and other support from state school-improvement officials.
(Credit: Brittney Phan for State Affairs)

Our story

Part I: A meeting that never was

For Eric Thomas, the beginning of the end for a short-lived state program he led to help struggling schools in Georgia came in the form of a meeting that never happened in September 2019.

Part II: Turnaround in Terrell County

By several accounts, the turnaround program saw gains in some districts like the Terrell County School System, where Cooper-Carver Elementary School in rural Dawson had languished in the test-score danger zone since 2015.

Part III: Politics at play

After early signs of success, complaints emerged from some larger school districts under the turnaround program as local education advocates traced tension between top officials to how the state legislature created the program.

Part IV: Audit questions contractor pay

A state-ordered audit found issues with the turnaround program’s contractor pay and staff travel reimbursements, but the program’s leader called the probe a politically motivated sham.

Part V: School improvement moves on

With the COVID-19 pandemic disrupting classroom teaching and test scores for more than a year, state and local school officials could use all the help they can get to ensure students at already low-performing schools do not fall through the cracks.

Header image: Elementary children in a classroom. (Credit: iStock)