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Georgia Reform Program's Standards and Funding Are Under Scrutiny

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Georgia's Quality Basic Education Act, one of the nation's most sweeping school-reform laws when it was adopted in 1985, is being reexamined as educators cope with its myriad accountability requirements and legislators seek ways to pay for more of its provisions.

Fifty-six of the state's 186 school districts were required to submit corrective plans of action last month after failing to meet state standards in the first comprehensive evaluation of districts under the qbe law.

Werner Rogers, the state school superintendent, has downplayed the high failure rate and has suggested that most districts do not need to undergo the extensive review every year.

Examined in the review were districts' adherence to state law and board policy in such areas as instruction, finance, teacher certification, and school performance. During the past year, state inspectors for the first time visited every public school in Georgia.

Only seven school systems passed the initial evaluation. Forty-eight were cited for various problems but were able to clear them up by the end of a 30-day grace period, while another 75 systems cleared up some violations but were found to have committed others that could not be corrected retroactively.

The remaining 56 districts were late in meeting some standards and had to submit corrective plans.8Problems ranged from students being promoted to 4th grade without proof they had passed the required promotion test, to school buildings failing to meet health codes.

"After 30 days, the vast majority of systems could prove to us they were meeting the standards," Mr. Rogers said. "There were six or seven systems that had multiple problems. We want to spend time to help bring them up to standard. We don't help anybody by just finding that they are not standard."

None of the districts had problems as severe as those discovered during an evaluation last year in Quitman County, where school officials' neglect in taking corrective action prompted the state board last November to threaten to cut off funds to the district's lone school.

The rural district is "slowly, but surely" working on its corrective plan and no further action has been taken to actually cut off funds, state officials said.

Mr. Rogers says he favors the establishment of an evaluation "cycle'' of three to five years for districts that have not experienced major problems.

"What I have suggested is, we have had numerous school systems that have met all of our legal and policy standards without exception, so let's go ahead and start that cyclical process with them," he said. "Then we can concentrate staff time on school systems that aren't meeting the standards."

Mr. Rogers' viewpoint is consistent with a growing perception in the state that the accountability measures of the qbe act, while important, may also be burdensome to educators.

"The standards process takes an extreme amount of time, excessive paperwork, and takes away from teaching and learning in our classrooms,'' said Gary Ashley, executive vice president of the Georgia School Boards Association.

The superintendent has also suggested changes for Georgia's teacher-certification program, such as a cutback in annual observations of experienced teachers.

Meanwhile, Georgia educators have been paying close attention in recent weeks to legislative debate over a proposed 1-cent sales-tax increase. Revenue from the tax increase would help give teachers a pay raise and provide greater funding for qbe programs.

"Because of budget problems, we've been slowing down the implementation of our reform," Mr. Rog4ers said. "We don't want to slow down, we want to keep going."

According to the superintendent, teachers have been bombarding legislators in support of the sales tax, which would effectively result in a 5.9 percent salary increase for them.

The state needs another $5008million for the qbe program next year, he said, to fund an in-school suspension program, a remedial program for pupils in the early elementary grades, and other reform measures.

Both houses of the legislature have passed a sales-tax increase, but conferees were deadlocked last week over whether food purchases should be exempted from the increase.

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