Ga. Governor Acts Fast To Turn Up the Heat on Schools

By Linda Jacobson — May 02, 2001 7 min read
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When Roy E. Barnes took office as the governor of Georgia, Barbara Christmas was among many members of the education community who were hoping he would put education on the front burner. “I’m just not sure we wanted it set on high from the get-go,” she now says.

Many people would agree with Ms. Christmas, a top official with a 49,000-member nonunion teachers’ group in the state, that the Democratic governor has approached few school issues as too hot to handle.

In just 2½ years, he has pushed through legislation that rewards schools based on student achievement, requires help for schools that are failing, and eliminates tenure for newly hired teachers. He has also won passage of a much-debated initiative to end the practice of social promotion by requiring students to pass state tests to advance in certain grades.

Observers say the governor, a trial lawyer by profession who served in both the state House and Senate, is taking on tough educational issues in the same determined and thorough way that he used to get ready for a case.

“He’s one of the smartest politicians I’ve ever met,” said Carl D. Glickman, a professor of education at the University of Georgia in Athens. “He reads everything.”

There have been plenty of moments, though, when the governor’s political acumen has been open to debate. Mr. Barnes hasn’t shied from turning up the heat on educators as he seeks to lift Georgia from near the bottom of many educational rankings, and has offended influential constituencies along the way.

Last year, he angered teachers by criticizing educators and by including in his education package the provision that would eliminate tenure for newly hired teachers. Teachers said they felt the governor was blaming them for low student performance.

“There are those who said I was too harsh, but I’m passionate about this,” Gov. Barnes said during a recent interview in his state Capitol office here.

Union Changes View

Feeling that Mr. Barnes had indeed been too harsh, around this time last year the Georgia Association of Educators was looking to the governor’s fiercest critic, the elected Republican state schools superintendent, Linda C. Schrenko, as its spokeswoman against dropping tenure. But this year, the same group is praising the law against social promotion. Ralph B. Noble, the president of the National Education Association affiliate, called the plan a “major win for classroom teachers.”

Mr. Barnes attributes educators’ show of support for this year’s plan to several developments. First, scores on the state’s “criterion-referenced competency test,” released last summer, showed that 35 percent of 4th graders did not meet state standards in reading, and almost half the 8th graders did not meet the standards in mathematics.

Second, President Bush, with his “Leave No Child Behind” motto, used the same language about accountability in laying out his national education agenda after taking office in January, Mr. Barnes said.

“The dialogue changed,” the governor said. “Not one person said we don’t need to do this.”

‘Bad Science’?

There are certainly those who oppose the latest education package in Georgia, saying that basing student-promotion and - retention decisions on the results of one test is unfair, especially to minority students who have traditionally performed worse than their white classmates on standardized tests.

“Using a high-stakes test is bad science, and it has dire consequences for children,” Mr. Glickman argued. “I don’t think kids should just be promoted on and on, but I’m arguing that you use reliable and comprehensive assessments that are more than a single test.”

Gov. Barnes and other supporters of the new legislation say that because the plan includes an appeals process, in which the principal, the classroom teacher, and a parent must unanimously decide whether the child should be held back a grade, other factors in addition to the test score will be considered.

They also say the legislation will enable struggling students get help, through smaller classes, more instructional days, and early identification of academic weaknesses.

During final debate over the bill this year, lawmakers added a provision that calls for a 19-member group to be known as the Georgia Closing the Achievement Gap Commission. Panel members, whom the governor is expected to appoint soon, will recommend ways to improve performance among the state’s lowest-achieving students.

To further assist students trailing behind, Mr. Barnes says he might propose that class sizes in low-performing schools be reduced even more—to 18 in kindergarten and 21 in grades 1-3. He also wants to connect teacher professional development more tightly to school improvement efforts, and to add academic rigor to the senior year of high school.

“Improvement is about changing expectations,” the governor said. “It is about a child who comes from a poor background and about providing the assistance they need.”

Still, some observers expect adjustments to this year’s social-promotion law before it takes effect with 3rd graders in 2003- 04. “They start out in the absolute, and then reality sets in,” said Gary Ashley, the executive director of the Georgia School Boards Association.

People in the state also note that some of the governor’s actions this year suggest that he might be more open to negotiation than he appears.

One of most debated steps Mr. Barnes took last year was to eliminate the use of paraprofessionals in the early grades. But this year, Mr. Barnes said that after hearing from teachers, he “became convinced of the real need” for paraprofessionals and restored money for one teacher’s aide in each kindergarten class.

Even Ms. Schrenko, who has informally announced her intention to run for governor next year, offered some backhanded praise for that move. “It’s amazing how a year of experience brings wisdom to people who should have listened in the first place,” said the state superintendent, who has filed the paperwork needed to begin raising money for her campaign.

Gov. Barnes heard from many who doubted that his plan to reduce class sizes in the early grades would work if the need for more classrooms was not addressed. So in a budget amendment for the 2001 fiscal year, the legislature allocated $468 million for classroom construction. Combined with money from the regular 2002 budget, districts will receive roughly $700 million to build and expand facilities.

While the plan to end social promotion got the most publicity and debate during this year’s legislative session, the governor says the construction money could have greater long-term impact.

In addition to facilities, Mr. Barnes faces a challenge presented by the funding gap between rich and poor districts.

“There is great disparity in the amount of funds you can generate per pupil,” said William A. Hunter, the superintendent of the 3,000-student school district in Brantley County, a one-stoplight, rural county in the southeastern part of the state.

The legislature adjusted the state’s funding formula last year to send more money to poor districts. But Mr. Hunter and the leaders of about 50 other low-wealth districts, who have discussed the possibility of suing the state, don’t believe enough has been done to give students in poor districts an equal shot.

After meeting several weeks ago with a sympathetic Mr. Barnes, the districts have shelved the legal challenge for now and are hoping their concerns will be addressed through the political system.

“The governor has been very receptive toward our concerns,” Mr. Hunter said.

Schools at the Center?

While many respect the governor for his hard-line attitude on improving Georgia’s schools, his would- be challenger in next year’s governor’s race, Ms. Schrenko, says he is close- minded and accuses him of “stripping” functions from the state education department in an effort to limit her power.

Some other education leaders, including those who want to replace her as the state schools chief, say that if the department is a weak link in the reform effort, it’s because Ms. Schrenko has fought so hard against Mr. Barnes’ plans.

“There are enough opportunities for leadership to go around,” said Ms. Christmas, the executive vice president of the nonunion Professional Association of Georgia Educators, who intends to run for state superintendent in the Democratic primary next year.

But Ms. Schrenko, whom many here describe as politically naive, has never allowed critics to slow her down.

“If I come out a loser, I come out a better person,” said Ms. Schrenko, who was elected in an upset in 1994 and re-elected four years later. “If I come out a winner, I’ll be governor.”

David Worley, the chairman of the Democratic Party of Georgia, said that Democrats would “certainly take any challenge she mounts very seriously,” even though “the voters of this state are squarely behind Roy Barnes.”

Although a race between Ms. Schrenko and Mr. Barnes would put education at the center of the state’s political arena, some people don’t see that as necessarily good for Georgia’s schools.

“I wonder,” said Tom Upchurch, the director of the Atlanta- based, business-led Georgia Partnership for Excellence in Education, “if the [reform] law can withstand the scrutiny of a yearlong political campaign with half-truths.”

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A version of this article appeared in the May 02, 2001 edition of Education Week as Ga. Governor Acts Fast To Turn Up the Heat on Schools


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