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Published in Print: February 14, 2001, as State of the States

State of the States

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Georgia | Alabama | Oklahoma | Pennsylvania |Rhode Island | Tennessee

The State of the States GEORGIA

Georgia Governor Calls for End To 'Social Promotion' of Students

Calling the school improvement initiatives that Georgia enacted last year a good foundation, Gov. Roy E. Barnes says the time has come to take them a step further and end social promotion in the state.

And he wants to do it in five years.

"By promoting a child who is not really ready, we say, 'It's OK if you don't learn,' " the governor said last week in his third State of the State Address. "Well, I say it's not okay."

Mr. Barnes, a Democrat, said the state is already putting in place conditions necessary to end the practice of allowing academically unprepared students to advance to the next grade for social considerations. Those steps include constant assessment of student learning, targeted interventions for children who have fallen behind, and smaller class sizes, he said.

Still, recent scores on the state's achievement test prove that the existing programs designed to give children extra assistance aren't enough for some students, the governor said.

Those results show that in 252 of Georgia's 1,800 public schools, more than half the students do not meet the state's standards for "basic" competency. More than a third of Georgia 4th graders are not reading at a basic level, and close to half the 8th graders have trouble with basic math, Mr. Barnes said.

"Now, I don't tell you this to condemn public education," said Mr. Barnes, who faced criticism from teachers after last year's address for his harsh words about the state education system. "I tell you this so that you can see the urgency in reform."

Tests a Factor

In explaining his plan, the governor said that new tests that are already under development in the state would be used to determine whether students were ready for the next grade. Those who didn't do well would get extra instruction before retaking the test.

Gov. Barnes called for having the state school board create standard promotion policies to ensure equity statewide. At the same time, though, he said that local districts would need to develop their own criteria for promotion. Last week, a spokeswoman for the governor said further details of the governor's plan were unavailable.

And finally, Mr. Barnes said, an appeals process for parents and students will need to be devised.

"The most important piece of this is that we must make sure that if a child is indeed held back, extra programs will be available to help that child learn the second time around," the governor said. "Repeating a grade needs to be the last resort."

Barbara Christmas, the executive vice president of the Professional Association of Georgia Educators, a 48,000-member nonunion teachers' group, said she didn't expect the governor's plan to generate a lot of controversy.

"I think he was so clear about the safety net needed for kids who don't meet the standards," she said. "I don't know how anybody could argue with the way he laid it out."

Amanda Seals, the spokeswoman for state schools Superintendent Linda C. Schrenko, said even though the superintendent has criticized Mr. Barnes' education initiatives in the past, she has strongly advocated ending social promotion since first being elected in 1994. "It's been proposed lots of times here in Georgia," Ms. Seals said. "But it's never gone anywhere."

—Linda Jacobson


ALABAMA

Siegelman Proposes Hedge Against Slower Economy

Less than a week after announcing sharp cuts in state education spending for the current fiscal year, Gov. Donald Siegelman of Alabama pledged in his State of the State Address to expand teacher training and student participation in a statewide reading initiative.

"Our job this year will be tougher because of economic uncertainty, but it should not and will not stop us," the Democratic governor said in his Feb. 6 address. "We will provide our children with the education they deserve."

Mr. Siegelman also asked the legislature to create a $50 million emergency fund to prevent teacher layoffs, following a 6.2 percent cut in state education aid for fiscal 2001. ("State Budget Woes Hit Schools in Deep South," Feb. 14, 2001.)

He also spent much of the speech trumpeting educational progress in Alabama, including rising test scores and reduced dropout rates. "Folks, we are changing education for the better, and, yes, we are changing it forever," Mr. Siegelman said.

—Jessica L. Sandham


OKLAHOMA

Keating Calls Education Key to Population Gains

Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating is galled at the Sooner State's impending loss of one of its six seats in the U.S. House of Representatives as a result of the 2000 Census. And he sees stronger schools as part of the answer to getting that seat back in 2011, he told legislators last week.

Better schools would make the state more attractive to current and new residents, along with more roads, less crime and taxes, and better health care, he argued.

"To make Oklahoma grow, we must make Oklahoma smarter," said the second-term Republican governor, who proposed adding $100 million to the state's $2 billion budget for K-12 schools.

Of that, $80 million would be distributed to school districts through three types of block grants for schools that would "encourage and reward success," Mr. Keating proposed.

The first block grant—totaling about $15 million—would be a matching grant to schools that shifted spending away from administrative functions and toward the classroom. "For every dollar of administrative overhead that is cut, in this block grant formula, a dollar will go to the classroom," Mr. Keating said.

The second grant program—about $12 million—would reward districts that had achieved a high level of performance, under criteria to be designed by the state board of education, which has endorsed the idea.

Most of the money for block grants—about $53 million—would be distributed as "improvement grants" to schools trying to meet those criteria for designation as "21st Century Schools." Schools could use the money for salaries, bonuses, or merit pay for teachers, for technology, or any other items that they decided would help improve academic performance.

The rest of the governor's proposed $100 million increase in school funding would cover $14 million for textbooks and $6 million to help schools expand existing special programs to aid learning.

"We can get our congressman back if we make Oklahoma smarter," Mr. Keating said.

—Andrew Trotter


PENNSYLVANIA

State Should Give Grants For Tutoring, Ridge Says

Gov. Tom Ridge of Pennsylvania argues that legislators could stop the state's "brain drain" by backing his budget plan for fiscal 2002, which would raise spending on education while also setting up several new school programs.

"People may come to Pennsylvania for opportunity— but they'll stay for our schools," the Republican governor said last week in his annual budget address to the legislature. "Our schools must be our best advertisement."

Under one of the new initiatives in his $20.8 billion spending plan for the next fiscal year, Mr. Ridge would allot $23.6 million for grants of up to $500 each so that 3rd, 4th, and 5th graders performing below grade level in mathematics and reading could pay for private tutoring services or other support.

"Tens of thousands of children will get another chance to master the basic skills of learning," he said in the Feb. 6 speech. In Pennsylvania, the governor's annual budget message serves the purpose of the State of the State addresses given in most other states.

Gov. Ridge also proposes setting aside $15 million to offset 50 percent tax credits for businesses that donate money to nonprofit groups for student scholarships and other educational services.

In addition, he would allocate $2 million to help districts create "independent schools" that would be part of the local system, but would operate outside its bureaucracy.

The schools would not have less freedom than independent public charter schools, Mr. Ridge said. "Let's empower each of those schools with their own budget, their own leadership, their own path to greatness," he said.

In another proposal from the governor, 35 districts would share $35 million in new funding above their normal, formula- driven state aid to help them compensate for declining wealth. The Philadelphia city schools—the state's largest district, with 210,000 students—would get most of that aid, or $24 million.

Mr. Ridge's budget would raise total state aid to Pennsylvania's 501 local K-12 school districts to $6.4 billion, an increase of 3.7 percent over fiscal 2001.

Special education funds would climb 10 percent to $861 million over fiscal 2001—the largest single-year spending jump in a decade. Early-childhood-intervention aid would rise nearly 6 percent to $98.8 million.

—Robert C. Johnston


RHODE ISLAND

Almond Wants To Retool Education Finance System

Promising a "significant investment in education" in the budget plan he is scheduled to unveil this week, Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Almond used his State of the State address last week to call for new funding for teacher-quality initiatives and a new formula for distributing state aid to school districts.

In proposing a new school funding mechanism, the second-term Republican governor hopes to quell complaints by some middle- income communities that the current system leaves them shouldering too much of the burden of supporting their schools through local property taxes. Part of the problem is that state aid accounts for less than half of all spending on elementary and secondary schools in Rhode Island.

Mr. Almond's plan—which is based on the recommendations of a task force he appointed last year—includes the guarantee of at least a 7.5 percent overall increase in state funding for K- 12 education each year.

The governor stressed, however, in his Feb. 7 speech: "We continue to direct the bulk of our education dollars to our urban communities, and we will do it again this year."

Gov. Almond also proposed a new "master teacher" program, financed to the tune of $400,000. The initiative would give exemplary classroom teachers the opportunity to work with college faculty members to both update their skills and bring new teaching methods back to their schools. Mr. Almond also proposed spending $250,000 in new money on district programs that let veteran teachers mentor new ones.

"We must give teachers effective support programs to better prepare them for the challenges of the 21st-century classroom," he said.

—Jeff Archer


TENNESSEE

Sundquist Unveils Ideas for Retaining Teachers

Tennessee needs a statewide reading program, better early-childhood programs, and more strategies to reward and retain good teachers, Gov. Don Sundquist said in his State of the State Address.

Gov. Sundquist, a Republican in his second term, also wants colleges to seek help from precollegiate teachers in improving their teacher-training programs to more accurately reflect teachers' classroom experiences."It's imperative that as we do a better job preparing teachers to teach, we also do a better job of preparing kids to learn," he said in his Jan. 29 speech, about half of which was devoted to education.

To retain good teachers, he proposed instituting a mentoring program for first-year teachers in every school; enhancing the technology available to teachers; giving extra pay to teachers who earned certification from the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards; and doubling the amount of discretionary money, to $200 per teacher, given to teachers to pay for supplies.

Gov. Sundquist also called for universal preschool for all 4-year-olds, starting with those most at risk of school failure, and as many at-risk 3-year-olds as the system could handle. Aides to the governor said last week that details of the preschool proposal had yet to be fleshed out.

To help students who may have missed reading skills in elementary schools, he also wants to allocate money for middle schools to provide tutoring and other help. Every elementary and middle school, the governor said, should have its own reading coach.

—Joetta L. Sack

Vol. 20, Issue 22, Pages 22-23

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