Georgia pledges reform to get more federal education money

Georgia officials hand-delivered their application Tuesday hoping to qualify for a piece of the Obama administration’s new Race to the Top education fund, which is worth up to $4 billion to states that embrace educational reform. Having met the deadline for first-round applicants, the state now faces a series of tests as it competes against 39 other states and the District of Columbia. Ten states did not apply. Here are key parts of Georgia's proposal, what changes may be in store for local schools and which would be the first to implement them.


First, a primer: The Race to the Top fund represents one-time money paid out of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the economic stimulus package Congress passed last year. During a visit to Atlanta in December, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan stressed that the administration wants to see a "competitive" spirit in schools. As such, grants from the fund will go to states thought to be most likely to raise academic standards, improve teacher quality and allow innovation. In their applications, states must show how past efforts have affected student performance. They must have a plan to accelerate student gains with reforms that could be duplicated across the country. And they must outline how they would use the money. Georgia is estimated to be eligible for up to a $400 million fund grant, although its application requests approximately $460 million.


Georgia's 200-page application, which state officials made public Wednesday, concentrates on four key areas: standards and assessment; data systems to support instruction; "great" teachers and leaders; and turning around the lowest-achieving schools. In it, officials tout efforts over the last decade to overhaul Georgia's school curriculum, unify learning initiatives and test boundaries with a nationally rated charter school law, school-based "graduation coaches" and new "flexibility" contracts allowing local systems to free themselves from state mandates in exchange for school progress.  According to the application, state officials want to create a new office -- the State Office of School Turnaround -- to concentrate on low-performing schools. They would improve local and statewide student data systems to track students' academic progress in real-time.


Teacher pay: As part of the application, Gov. Sonny Perdue proposed last week to pay teachers based on how well they teach, not years on the job or level of education. It is unclear how the state would pay for the new system long-term, although the application states that educators' traditional "cost of living" pay raises could be converted toward this program.

Academic standards: Georgia is among 48 states that have signed on to an effort to develop common national academic standards in English, language arts and mathematics for grades k-12. Those standards would be voluntary but, according to the application, "Georgia is poised to adopt [them] quickly with a target date of July 2010." Officials also state an interest in a common, national testing assessment.

Certification and Placement: Officials propose tax-exempt "signing bonuses" for teachers who move to rural high-need schools. Educators renewing their certificates would have to show their effect on student achievement, a tie-in to the performance-based pay plan. Additionally, officials said they will change current certification rules to allow "non-educators" to become school principals.


As part of the application, 23 of the state's 181 local school systems -- representing 41 percent of all public school students -- committed to be the first to implement these reform efforts. They are: Atlanta, Ben Hill, Bibb, Burke, Carrollton, Chatham, Cherokee, Clayton, DeKalb, Dougherty, Gainesville, Gwinnett, Hall, Henry, Jones, Meriwether, Muscogee, Rabun, Richmond, Rockdale, Spalding, Valdosta and White.


All applications will be evaluated and scored on a 500-point scale. Scores will include 19 overall criteria, with some of the biggest points awarded for demonstrated support at the local level and the use of student performance to evaluate educators. In-person interviews with teams from states picked as finalists will be done in March. Winners will be announced in April. Duncan said this week that not all states that applied will get money. States that fail in the first round can try again, with a second round of applications due June 1.