Georgia may finally have a governor and a state schools superintendent who agree on education policy, but that doesn’t mean all of their ideas were well-received by the legislature this year.
Republican Gov. Sonny Perdue—who defeated Democratic Gov. Roy E. Barnes last fall with the support of teachers—was able to win on some pieces of his education agenda. But a budget shortfall and Democratic resistance prevented him from claiming complete victory on issues that included class-size reduction and teacher tenure.
One of the first things the new governor said he wanted to do was to move the state’s independent school-accountability agency, which was created by Gov. Barnes in 2000, into the state education department. Superintendent Kathy Cox, also a Republican elected last fall, firmly agreed, saying that the people who write curriculum, develop tests, and grade schools all need to be working together.
But Democrats, still loyal to former Gov. Barnes, shot down that idea.
In an interview last week, Ms. Cox called the failure of that plan a “temporary obstacle,” saying that as the requirements of the federal “No Child Left Behind” Act of 2001 are implemented, the lingering division “makes it difficult for the federal government to know who is really in charge.”
Nevertheless, the department is adapting, she said. Just last week, Georgia became the 20th state to have its “adequate yearly progress” plan, which is required by the law, approved by the U.S. Department of Education.
However, the state also ran afoul of other federal requirements and faces the possible loss of federal aid. (“Department Levies $783,000 Title I Penalty on Ga.”, this issue.)
Returning ‘Fair Dismissal’
Mr. Perdue also wanted to return “fair dismissal rights” to educators, which, under Mr. Barnes, were eliminated for teachers hired after July 1, 2000.
But Gov. Perdue sought a new, streamlined version of the law, in which teachers who have been on the job for at least three years could appeal to the state’s Professional Standards Commission if their districts attempted to fire them.
Instead, the legislature passed a more teacher-friendly bill that is nearly identical to the version thrown out under Gov. Barnes, which involves several more steps for a teacher to be removed.
On top of that, an amendment was tacked on to the bill that gives teachers a 5 percent raise if their students earn a “significant increase” in average scores on the state’s Criterion-Referenced Competency Test. The state board of education would have to set the amount of the test-score increase, and may have to choose other tests to be used if the teacher teaches a subject not tested by the CRCT.
In a year of budget cuts, in which state money could not be found for an across-the-board raise for teachers, legislators were eager to give educators something, said Herb Garrett, the executive director of the Atlanta-based Georgia School Superintendents Association.
But he said the amendment is “fraught with problems,” not the least of which is the lack money to pay for the increases.
Bob Cribbs, the director of government relations for the Georgia Association of Educators, defended the legislation by pointing out the tests are not yet developed, and teachers won’t be eligible to get the bonuses for three years.
The legislation, he said, responds to Mr. Barnes’ policy changes, which set up a monetary-reward system for teachers in schools that receive an A or B on the state’s report cards.
“There should be a way to provide an incentive for good teachers to go into struggling schools,” Mr. Cribbs said in support of the bill. Mr. Perdue is expected to sign the bill.
The governor also wanted to push back by one year the ongoing implementation of Mr. Barnes’ plan to reduce class sizes, which went into effect in 2000. Legislators didn’t look too favorably on that idea either.
A compromise was eventually reached, in which class limits for 4th grade and above will be delayed for a year. Districts will also get a little flexibility in complying with the class-size law: Instead of staying within the limits for each class, they will be able to use a systemwide average. They will, however, be allowed to go just two students over the limit in any given classroom.
“Kids don’t come in nice, neat bundles of 21 or 18,” Mr. Garrett said.
Kindergarten classes will also be able to exceed the maximum of 18 students by two additional students as long as a paraprofessional is in the classroom.
While those changes are only in effect for one year, Mr. Garrett said that Mr. Perdue might be able to argue for keeping the relaxed rules in place longer, considering the state’s budget crunch.
“No one really believes that the budget situation is going to be any better next year than it is this year,” he said.
But Mr. Cribbs of the GAE, a 40,000-member affiliate of the National Education Association, said the change—even if it is temporary—is disappointing.
“You’re not really serious about improving student achievement unless you’re serious about reducing class size,” he said.
Summing up the governor’s first legislative session, Mr. Garrett called it a good example of “two-party politics,” in contrast to this time last year when Democrats controlled the governor’s office and both houses of the legislature. Republicans now have the majority in the Senate, while Democrats control the House of Representatives.
Holly Robinson, a senior vice president at the Georgia Public Policy Foundation, an Atlanta-based conservative think tank, observed that the state Capitol in Atlanta was “like a whole different world. It’s not necessarily bad that a whole lot of bills didn’t get passed.”