Georgia’s largest school district is the first to enter into a contract under a new state law allowing districts freedom from certain state mandates in exchange for working to raise student achievement beyond state and federal requirements.
The state board of education signed off on the 157,000-student Gwinnett County district’s plan on Jan. 8.
“Let me boil it down for you: This is true local control with real accountability,” Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue said during his State of the State address last month.
Legislation allowing for flexibility on state rules, such as class-size limits and teacher-certification requirements, was approved by lawmakers last year, and Alvin Wilbanks, Gwinnett County’s superintendent, was one of the bill’s chief supporters. (“States Eye Looser Rein on Districts,”, March 5, 2008.)
During a public hearing in the district in December, Mr. Wilbanks said the law “addresses a long-standing concern of [the Gwinnett County] board about the incessant mandates, most of them unfunded or underfunded, that have been passed by the legislature and that do little if anything to help student achievement.”
Increasing some class sizes even by a small amount, he said, could save the Gwinnett County schools millions of dollars at a time when the state is having to dip into reserves and make cuts to balance the budget.
The Investing in Educational Excellence—or IE²—law provides for serious consequences if districts that receive extra operating flexibility fail to meet the student-performance targets they agree to with the state.
Gwinnett County’s contract, for example, stipulates that schools will increase the percentage of students exceeding performance benchmarks in mathematics and English/language arts, and increase the percentage of students reaching or exceeding performance targets in science, under the federal No Child Left Behind Act. For English-language learners and students with disabilities, the district pledges to maintain or improve scores.
After five years, any school that fails to meet those goals will be converted to a charter school. Schools that meet targets for three years in a row, prior to the fifth year, however, will be exempted.
After negotiating with the state, officials of the Gwinnett County district pulled existing charter schools, alternative schools, and a special education facility out of the contract.
Once a predominantly white, middle-class school district, Gwinnett County, located northeast of Atlanta, has grown increasingly diverse over the past 15 years. More than 22 percent of students in the district are Hispanic, and 29 percent are African-American. Almost 14 percent are English-language learners, and 46 percent qualify for subsidized school lunches.
Last school year, only four of the district’s 105 schools failed to make adequate yearly progress under the No Child Left Behind law. But the district’s AYP report also shows that Gwinnett County did not meet achievement targets in math for students with disabilities. And at the high school level, English-learners, specifically Hispanic students, are scoring below targets in both math and English/language arts.
“We’re not just looking at meeting what is required,” said Sloan Roach, a spokeswoman for the district. “We’re looking to raise that achievement.”
Schools in Gwinnett County are now determining which state policies and rules are getting in their way, and the governor’s office of student achievement will monitor the district’s progress.
District officials say they have been talking about preparing a contract ever since the legislation was signed last year. Still, some parents and teachers have complained that they have not been involved in the process.
Teachers have raised concerns over the possibility of increased class sizes or the loss of break periods that are granted by the state. Some are suspicious that schools will transfer failing students into alternative schools to avoid the consequences of not meeting the improvement targets.
“You can find research that says class size doesn’t make a hoot of difference,” said Susan Dietz, a co-president of the Gwinnett County Association of Educators, an affiliate of the National Education Association. “I’m telling you as a language arts teacher you bet it does.”
Ms. Roach said the district was in a hurry to get the plan approved by the state because it is in the midst of preparing its budget for next school year.
“With anything new, you’re going to have questions,” Ms. Roach said. “Now is when the real work begins, and it’s going to happen at the local school level.”
Meanwhile, Gwinnett is unlikely to remain the only district seeking to get out from under certain state regulations.
The 32,000-student Forsyth County school district, north of Atlanta, is currently preparing a proposal. The district has spent the past year retooling its strategic plans and setting new achievement goals.
“We were looking for a vehicle to actually do it,” said Jennifer Caracciolo, a spokeswoman for the Forsyth County district. “We already have a lot of accountability measures in place that go above and beyond, but we just don’t have the flexibility.”
A version of this article appeared in the February 04, 2009 edition of Education Week as Georgia District Pledges Student Gains to Win Flexibility