Georgia Legislators Pass Accountability Plan

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Georgia has passed legislation based on the sweeping education proposals Gov. Roy E. Barnes outlined earlier this year, setting itself up to join such states as North Carolina and Texas in placing accountability at the center of its school improvement efforts.

The Georgia Senate voted 34-21 late last week in favor of a version of Mr. Barnes' A-Plus Education Reform Act. A conference committee is expected to attempt to iron out the differences between the bill and a similar measure the House passed 136-41 earlier in February.

Despite dozens of amendments introduced in both chambers, the overall framework of the plan remains intact. In addition to eliminating tenure protections for new teachers, the measure would set up a system by which schools would be graded from A to F based on their students' performance on state tests. Schools that did well would reap rewards—such as staff salary bonuses—while those that persistently failed would face sanctions such as the transfer or firing of personnel.

"This will radically alter the way education is delivered in Georgia," said Jill Joplin, a spokeswoman for the Georgia Partnership for Excellence in Education, which promotes higher standards for schools. "Education here will be more performance-based now."

Mr. Barnes, a first-term Democrat, began his second year as governor in January by unveiling an ambitious school improvement proposal that ran 125 pages. The plan called for class-size reductions, new policies to help schools deal with disruptive students, and closer ties between the state's higher education and pre-K-12 schools. ("Georgia Governor's Broad Education Plans Stir Debate," Jan. 26, 2000.)

Financial Incentives

But the centerpiece of his agenda has been a new system for holding educators more accountable. Under the recently passed bills, schools would be graded based on both their students' absolute test scores and on how much they had improved. Each year, teachers at schools awarded an A would receive $1,000 bonuses; those at B schools would get $500.

Meanwhile, grades of D or F would trigger various forms of state intervention that would become increasingly severe over time. If a school received poor grades for three or more years, for example, state education officials could order the removal of school personnel or give parents the option of transferring their children to another public school.

The bills also stipulate that students' achievement gains be considered in teachers' annual evaluations, and that educators with unsatisfactory evaluations be kept from moving on to the next step of the salary scale.

"We've said that after July 1 [when the legislation would take effect], you are not guaranteed a job in the education system in Georgia unless you are a productive teacher," said Mary J. Jamieson, a Democrat who chairs the House education committee.

Teachers aren't the only ones facing new accountability measures. For instance, the legislation would authorize districts to use the court system to compel parents of students with behavior problems to attend school conferences.

Other provisions include:

•Salary increases for teachers in the shortage areas of mathematics, science, foreign languages, and special education;

•A cap on class sizes in kindergarten through grade 3, and a stipulation that schools could not use noncertified staff members to meet the mandate, with the exact size of the cap and how it would be phased in still to be decided by the conference committee; and

•The formation at each school of a seven-person advisory council—including parents, teachers, and business leaders—authorized to recommend candidates for principal.

Teacher Protest

Despite its strong support in the legislature, Mr. Barnes' plan has its critics, including state schools Superintendent Linda C. Schrenko. The measure calls for a new office of education accountability—whose director would be appointed by the governor—to oversee the new system of rewards and sanctions. Ms. Schrenko questions the need for a new state agency to carry out the plan.

"This adds another layer of bureaucracy," the Republican state schools chief said in an interview last week. "I can't help but think that local school systems are going to be bombarded with all kinds of rules and regulations that they wouldn't have had if this were kept with the state board of education."

But the loudest critic of the plan in recent weeks has been the Georgia Association of Educators, the state affiliate of the National Education Association. The group has been protesting a provision that would eliminate tenure protections for newly hired educators in the state. Specifically, the measure would lift a current mandate that teachers undergo a formal hearing process before they can be fired.

Recent debate on the plan in the House and Senate chambers has coincided with protests at the state Capitol by GAE members, many carrying signs saying "Teachers Are Not The Enemy" and "Teacher Bashing Has Its Price."

But Ron Newcomb, Gov. Barnes' education adviser, argued that tenure needs to be abolished to allow administrators to remove ineffective teachers more easily.

"Right now, if a teacher is just obviously incompetent, then a principal can take action, and the board will back them up," Mr. Newcomb said. "But it's those marginally bad teachers who creep in under the radar screen, and a tiny handful of teachers can go on teaching who shouldn't be."

Vol. 19, Issue 25, Pages 20, 25

Published in Print: March 1, 2000, as Georgia Legislators Pass Accountability Plan
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