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Georgia’s New Leaders Seek Major Governance Changes

By Linda Jacobson — January 29, 2003 7 min read
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Bit by bit, former Georgia Gov. Roy E. Barnes, a Democrat, transferred many of the state department of education’s functions to other agencies during his four years in office.

Now, Kathy Cox, the state’s newly elected Republican superintendent of schools, and Gov. Sonny Perdue, the Republican who unseated Mr. Barnes last November, want to bring them all back.

Initiatives such as Mr. Barnes’ school accountability system, teacher recruitment, and school improvement efforts—all programs that were handed over to other state offices—should be unified under a stronger “policy-driven department that serves the needs of local systems,” Ms. Cox, a former high school social studies teacher, said recently. She made the comments during an interview from her downtown transition headquarters here before she was sworn in to office.

“I don’t expect many hurdles in the legislature,” the new schools chief said regarding her plans to shift those duties back into the education department.

Whether Georgia’s Democratic lawmakers—who still control the state House, but not the Senate—warmly receive Ms. Cox’s and Mr. Perdue’s education agenda remains to be seen.

But apparently, there won’t be much resistance from the state’s education leaders.

“I think the overwhelming sentiment across our state is that the state department needs to be put back together,” said Herb Garrett, the executive director of the Atlanta-based Georgia School Superintendents Association. He added that local district officials have not only grown confused over where to call for information, but often don’t know whether to trust the answer they hear.

Others echoed his complaints.

“There are so many agencies trying to do parts of what was supposed to be one pie,” said Holly A. Robinson, the senior vice president for education at the Georgia Public Policy Foundation, an Atlanta-based think tank. “The department of education should be a support agency.”

Stephen D. Dolinger, the president of the Georgia Partnership for Excellence in Education, a business-led group that seeks to improve academic achievement in K-12 schools, said small districts are especially dependent on the department for services because, unlike large districts, they have a shortage of administrative and curriculum experts on staff.

In 2000, Mr. Barnes’ second year as governor, the legislature created the Office of Education Accountability. The powerful state agency was put in charge of setting student performance standards and grading schools to determine whether they should receive cash rewards for meeting targets, or special assistance because they are falling behind.

In addition to overseeing K-12 accountability, the office is in charge of determining whether other education agencies in the state—the university system, the Office of School Readiness, and the adult and technical education department—are meeting performance goals.

The creation of the accountability office kicked off a series of other actions by Mr. Barnes to transfer responsibility for various aspects of the precollegiate education system to other agencies. For example, teacher recruitment—and even a project to revise the state curriculum—went to the Professional Standards Commission, which is in charge of teacher certification and professional ethics.

The education department was also no longer in charge of improvement efforts for local schools. That job went to the state’s Regional Education Service Agencies, which are located around the state.

Past Political Battles

While some observers saw the governor’s actions as an attempt to install more checks and balances, Ms. Cox’s predecessor as state chief, Republican Linda C. Schrenko, repeatedly accused Mr. Barnes of playing politics, adding more layers of bureaucracy, and trying to strip away her authority.

“What is clear is that [the relationship between Ms. Schrenko and Mr. Barnes] was dysfunctional,” said James Watts, the vice president for state services for the Southern Regional Education Board, an interstate compact with headquarters located here. “There was a lot of disagreement in both personality and philosophy.”

Now, in the early days of their administrations, Superintendent Cox and Governor Perdue are trying to put that division behind them.

At his inauguration Jan. 13, the new governor talked about replacing “partisanship with partnership” and about “working with, not against, our teachers"—a reference to Mr. Barnes’ successful move to end teacher tenure in the state, and comments of his that many educators interpreted as blaming them for low student performance.

In fact, a central theme of Gov. Perdue’s campaign was his criticism of Mr. Barnes’ education changes.

“I will return control to those closest to the students, our superintendents, our principals, our teachers, and our parents,” Mr. Perdue said at the inauguration.

Using an argument she made during her campaign, Ms. Cox said she believes that “the people who write the curriculum need to be working with the people who develop the tests, who need to be working with the people who grade the schools, who need to be working with the people who help improve the schools.”

She said that while department staff people were working hard at their jobs, they had no “big picture” of school improvement efforts.

Even so, observers don’t expect the new governor and state superintendent to dismantle Mr. Barnes’ accountability plan completely, largely because its design closely matches what is required by the federal “No Child Left Behind” Act of 2001.

Indeed, before they took office, Ms. Cox and Mr. Perdue had already begun discussing what else they needed to do to meet the law’s requirements. “We don’t want Georgia to be the poster child for noncompliance,” Ms. Cox said.

Gov. Perdue will also try to make Ms. Cox’s reorganization of the department a smooth process by appointing new state board members. Two of the 11 members appointed by Gov. Barnes have already resigned, even though their terms had not yet expired. Before he was sworn in, Mr. Perdue asked four more members to step down, and he is expected to ask more to resign in the near future.

Ms. Cox said she also expects to be involved in the process of choosing new board members, even though the governor will officially appoint them.

“We will hopefully have the opportunity to select a group of people that I can work with,” she said.

Power and Influence

In spite of what appears to be a new era of cooperation between Georgia’s governor and its superintendent, some state lawmakers aren’t ready to place all of the responsibility for monitoring student performance back with the education department.

Rep. Kathy Ashe, a Democrat and a member of the House education committee, said that while some jobs that were taken out of the department logically should be returned, she doesn’t believe dissolving the accountability agency is a good idea.

“I felt real strongly that what we did was right,” she said. “It’s important not to have the person collecting the data be the same person running the program. The perception is that the fox is not guarding the hen house.”

But even if the accountability system is transferred back to the education department, Mr. Dolinger of the Georgia Partnership for Excellence in Education said, that doesn’t mean the system couldn’t accomplish what it was meant to do.

“Just putting it back doesn’t mean it loses a lot of its power and influence,” he argued.

Rep. Ashe added that Democrats will still give the new governor’s education proposals careful attention. “It’s hard to say whether it’s going to be a smooth-sailing reconstruction,” she said.

Regardless of where the accountability system ends up, Gov. Perdue and Ms. Cox face the challenge of raising student performance and providing teachers with the professional development they need during a time of budget cutbacks.

“They’ve not done a lot of things that other Southern states have done to develop a standards-driven system,” Mr. Watts of the SREB said of Georgia. “They are playing catch-up.”

States in which students are showing the most improvement “have worked in a bipartisan fashion over time and stayed the course,” Mr. Watts added. “The states that really have problems are the ones that pull the plug because of political differences.”

At least for now, few differences between the governor and the superintendent over education policy are apparent.

“Being in the same party is one thing,” Ms. Cox said, “but the best thing is that he and I are on the same page about reform.”

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