Education commission proposes broad overhaul of Georgia schools

The Education Reform Commission’s proposals fall into five categories. Here are highlights.

FUNDING: As they do now, school districts would get money based on the characteristics of each student they enroll, but the value of traits would change. Older students would be worth more, for instance, because of the higher cost of science labs or career-prep programs. New multiples for “economically disadvantaged” and “gifted” students would recognize the extra expense of educating those groups though some supplemental categories for struggling students would be eliminated. School districts would be free to allocate the money as they see fit.

EARLY CHILDHOOD: Pre-kindergarten teachers would be placed on a pay scale like the one for K-12 teachers, which rewards years on the job and credentials earned.

MOVE ON: Schools would be encouraged to let students learn at their own pace. Increasing the frequency of the Georgia Milestones tests, now administered once a year in most cases, would allow students to “move on when ready” to the next grade, even in the middle of the school year.

TEACHERS: The “training and education” pay scale, which gives predictable raises for years of experience and credentials earned, would be eliminated. This proposal, which only affects new teachers, would have school districts replace the pay scale with merit-based systems.

OPTIONS: A new tax credit program to steer public dollars to private schools was denied in a close vote. Proposals sought by charter schools, such as one that would mandate they get a proportional share in federal funding, passed easily. Others, such as one for clarification about which public school buildings charters can use, passed with dissent from many lawmakers on the commission.

Gov. Nathan Deal said he is going to push for merit pay — pay for performance — as part of the education reform he will promote during the coming session of the General Assembly.

“We’re not going to go to a fully merit-based pay system, but I do think there is a portion of the teachers’ pay should go to how good a teacher they are,” Deal said after a policy conference December 4. “Now, getting the education community to support that is sometimes difficult.”

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has tracked the progress of the commission Deal appointed to look over and recommend changes to Georgia’s education system. Here is Ty Tagami’s story of November 20 that summarizes some of the commission’s recommendations.

Gov. Nathan Deal’s Education Reform Commission signed off on proposals that could radically change the way Georgia’s 1.7 million students get their schooling and how more than $8 billion in taxpayer money gets spent.

It recommends the most comprehensive overhaul of education in recent memory, covering everything from teacher pay to the frequency of school testing and how the state divvies up money to 180 school districts. The proposals come as Georgia confronts the plummeting esteem of the teaching profession and waning interest among young adults in choosing the career, and as global competition ratchets up the pressure on school performance.

The group heard from five committees that spent months studying finance, teacher pay, early childhood learning, parental choice and school flexibility before deciding Thursday to forward proposals to the governor. Deal must now decide whether to push any of them through the General Assembly next year or enact those he can independently.

The most far-reaching proposal would alter the way more than a third of the state’s revenue is distributed to schools. It adds a quarter-billion dollars in funding and favors a hands-off approach that frees educators to spend money as they choose while eliminating rules on classroom size, contact time with teachers or teacher pay.

Besides drafting the outlines of the new funding scheme, this group developed ideas that would change how schools are organized and administered and how teachers are managed. It would:

  • encourage pay-for-performance for a workforce accustomed to raises based on seniority and credentials;
  • establish better mentoring for starting teachers and more classroom training for college students in teaching programs;
  • introduce higher pay for teachers in pre-kindergarten classrooms, which research increasingly says are an important foundation when done right;
  • offer more financial and other support to charter schools, and
  • encourage schools to set up classrooms that allow students to learn at their own pace and offer the Georgia Milestones tests more frequently.

This group made it further than predecessors who tried, and failed, to overhaul the 1985 Quality Basic Education Act, a school funding law praised for its thoroughness but criticized as outdated and inflexible. They avoided an obstacle that bogged down previous groups by not asking a difficult question: How much should it cost to educate each child? Instead, this commission arrived at numbers dictated by what the state has been spending in recent years, an amount that has been lower than it was meant to be.

Since 2003, Georgia governors and lawmakers have put less into the educational budget than the 1985 formula required — shorting it by about half a billion dollars in the current year alone. Though the proposal adds money, the total still falls about a quarter-billion short of the current formula. Critics contend that the state should be spending much more, since expectations are rising along with the level of poverty, which magnifies the difficulty for teachers.

“We’re not really looking at the changing demographics of our students, the additional needs that many of them are bringing to the classroom, and we really haven’t taken into account how our standards have changed,” said Claire Suggs, an analyst with the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute. “We’re expecting much more of students today. … Are we going to invest the resources necessary to get there?”

Close scrutiny and stiff opposition are likely if some of these ideas make it to the legislative arena, especially those involving charter schools. Most of the proposals got unanimous consent, but those involving charter schools and other options that draw money away from traditional public schools were the most controversial. Two recommendations involving tax credits for private schools and voucher-like accounts for parents were shot down in close votes.

“It breaks down on school choice versus a traditional model. That’s where you saw the split in the votes,” said Sen. Fran Millar, R-Dunwoody, one of several lawmakers on the commission.

The funding could also prove controversial, since many contend that the current formula just needs minor adjustment and would work fine if state leaders would fully fund it.

Proponents of changing the educational system were largely satisfied with the recommendations. Ryan Mahoney, a lobbyist with the Foundation for Excellence in Education, a national group founded by former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, said the “reforms will give parents more options, educators more flexibility and students more opportunity to achieve their God-given potential.”

State Superintendent Richard Woods applauded the extra funding, but said more needs to be done about an “overemphasis” on testing in the evaluation of teachers.

Teachers advocates complained about a lack of representation on the commission and expressed mistrust of its work. One of the top concerns teachers voiced in meetings with members of the commission — about the emphasis on testing in their job evaluations — was not addressed in the final recommendations.

“There should have been teachers at the table,” said Sid Chapman, president of the Georgia Association of Educators. He said teachers are disappointed with the process and with the state of the Georgia educational system. “All I hear is ‘I want out as soon as I can get out,’ ” he said, adding that they tell him they are discouraging younger people from entering the career.

Several parents who support the charter school proposals spoke at the end of the meeting. Addie Price said her daughter was shy and awkward in the neighborhood school but a year at a charter high school in Cherokee County transformed her. She now speaks confidently in front of large crowds. “It has been amazing the change in her,” Price said, noting that the charter school closed due to financial pressure while her daughter was still there. She hopes charters will get more funding because of the commission recommendations.

“I’m so excited about seeing some of this stuff implemented,” she said.

Out in traditional school hallways there were voices of support, too. Todd Finn, a principal in Henry County, wasn’t on the commission but he’s been watching the process, and said much of what is proposed would facilitate the kinds of changes he is trying to introduce.

His students at Hampton High School are given a lot of choices, from deciding where they want to hold class (some choose the hallways) to selecting the projects they will do to demonstrate what they have learned.

“We’re still setting up schools to serve an industrial nation that no longer exists,” said Finn, who wants to prepare his students to think in a fast-changing world. He said he needs more flexibility in the way he pays teachers, so he can continue to recruit and reward those who can get the job done. And he needs to be able to spend the money his school is given in the most creative ways.

“These reforms and this flexibility will allow us to do more of it,” he said.