Georgia lawmakers postpone major education changes

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ATLANTA — State lawmakers made few major changes to education policy during this year’s legislative session. Bills to empower parents and teachers to convert failing public schools into charter schools stalled in committee, and so did a measure to change state curriculum standards. Instead, lawmakers lowered the grade-point average requirements so more people would qualify for the popular HOPE grant program for technical college students and expanded a scholarship program that has drawn some questions about transparency and effectiveness.

Perhaps the biggest change was the standardization of teacher evaluations based, in part, on student performance.

“That’s a good example of a bill that took several years to work its way through in terms of final passage,” said Rep. Edward Lindsey. “It is good policy and it’s a step in the right direction.”

The bill, sponsored by state Rep. Randy Nix, R-LaGrange, calls for each local school district and all charter schools to implement an evaluation system to be defined by the state Board of Education. Nix said it was based on a state pilot program and included input from superintendents, principals and teachers.

Under the bill, student performance will comprise at least 50 percent of the evaluation for teachers who teach courses that are part of annual state tests.

“We send our children to school to learn and have expectations that they will make progress each year, so I think it is only reasonable to use student growth as a major part of a teacher’s evaluation,” Nix wrote in an e-mail.

Other measures of student performance – to be determined later – will account for at least 50 percent of the evaluation for those not teaching the tested courses. The results of multiple classroom observations also will factor in. The bill would also direct local school districts to base decisions on retention, promotion, compensation and dismissals primarily on the results of the evaluations. The bill is under review by Gov. Nathan Deal.

The governor is expected to sign legislation restoring a lower GPA requirement for students seeking HOPE grants to attend the state’s technical colleges. Two years ago, lawmakers raised the grade-point average to 3.0 because of a decline in lottery revenues that fund the HOPE program. In the years since, there was a notable decline in enrollment. The plan returns the qualifying GPA to 2.0. Supporters say an increase in lottery revenues allows for the change and the move will benefit several thousand students at an estimated total cost of $5 million to $8 million annually.

The student scholarship program that was expanded helps children attend private schools. It is funded through donations from individuals and corporations who, in turn, are eligible for a tax break. Lawmakers agreed to raise the cap to $58 million for the program, over concerns from critics that the program diverts money away from public schools that continue to struggle financially.

Among those bills that stalled in committee was the proposed Parent and Teacher Empowerment Act, which lets parents and teachers petition a local school board to convert a failing public school into a charter school.

Sen. William T. Ligon, R-Brunswick, introduced a bill mid-session that would halt implementation of the Common Core State Standards, an initiative embraced by dozens of states including Georgia that creates basic student learning requirements in certain subjects. The bill remains active for consideration next year.


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