Georgia Governor's Broad Education Plans Stir Debate
Gov. Roy Barnes' plan for improving the Georgia education system is being called bold and far-reaching. But some education leaders and associations are having trouble swallowing some of the details of the package.
Introduced Jan. 14, the 125-page bill would abolish tenure for new teachers, create an independent office of education accountability, and allow parents to transfer their children out of failing schools. Mr. Barnes, a Democrat who took office a year ago, also proposes that class sizes be cut to just 11 students per teacher in the early grades for low-performing schools, that teachers pass basic technology tests before they are hired or recertified, and that signing bonuses be used to attract teachers to hard-to-fill areas such as math and science, and in rural schools.
The measure is currently before the House education committee.
Talking tough before members of the state legislature, the governor criticized the "education bureaucracy" for what he sees as attempts to gloss over Georgia's lackluster rankings on a variety of measures.
"No matter what yardstick you look at—SAT scores, 8th grade math proficiency, the Armed Forces Qualification Test, high school completion rates—we are failing to give our children the education they need," he said.
That theme drew praise from a representative of the state's school districts. "Many things in his proposal are needed and will challenge all of us across the state to improve our schools," said Gary Ashley, the executive director of the Georgia School Boards Association.
But some critics, including state schools Superintendent Linda C. Schrenko, say Mr. Barnes' plan would simply add more bureaucracy.
Too Many Layers?
Ms. Schrenko, a Republican who is serving her second term as the elected state chief, opposes the proposed accountability office and the "education coordinating council," a new entity comprising the leaders of all the state's education agencies. Among other duties, the new council would oversee the accountability office.
In a recent letter, Ms. Schrenko criticized the bill for adding "two more layers between what the state board of education and I, through the department of education, need to accomplish."
Another part of the bill prompting opposition is a requirement that schools create local councils, made up of the principal, two teachers, two parents, and two business representatives.
While the bill calls the councils advisory, it also gives them a say in such personnel matters as hiring principals—a provision that some believe violates the state constitution and infringes on school boards' authority.
Mr. Barnes' proposed accountability system would work much like those in other states, with rewards for schools that exceeded their goals and intervention for those that fell short. After three years of low performance, teachers could be fired and parents could remove their children, with the district paying for transportation to another public school. While the education department would develop and administer the tests used to determine rewards and sanctions, the new accountability office would set the expected performance levels for students and schools.
Vouchers Not Included
Mr. Barnes' plan does not include vouchers to send children to private schools—an option that was discussed by his education reform commission, which began meeting last summer. ("Georgia Panel Eyes Vouchers, Accountability Agency," Dec. 1, 1999.)
But there are some unusual features. The accountability office would answer directly to the governor instead of the legislature or the board of education, as is the case in many states. And the new office would oversee the entire education system, from preschool to graduate school.
Not surprisingly, the idea of abolishing tenure for newly hired teachers drew fire from teachers' groups. Some argued that the accountability program itself provides enough incentives for districts to make sure they have well-qualified teachers without getting rid of tenure.
Despite such objections, many observers praised Mr. Barnes for proposing smaller class sizes and more counselors, social workers, and school psychologists. He also wants to use $30 million from the giant settlement between states and tobacco companies to put a nurse in every school.
His funding proposals would also adjust the school finance formula in ways educators believe are overdue. Passed in 1985, the Quality Basic Education Act—the state's last major school reform law—set different funding levels for different programs, such as special education and vocational education. The formula, however, no longer reflects the true costs of education, local school leaders say.
Vol. 19, Issue 20, Page 15