ATLANTA -- While tentatively agreeing to tighten standards, members of Georgia's Board of Education Thursday applauded the increase in state students accepted into school programs for gifted children because of new admissions criteria.
"It seems to me if we're spending more money on the gifted program, we're moving in the right direction," said Dr. Brenda Fitzgerald, a board member from Carrollton.
"If we talk about limiting the amount of money for our brightest students, somewhere we're thinking backwards," said Board Chairman Johnny Isakson of Marietta.
The latest changes in the state's $69.7 million gifted program -- which won't be up for final consideration until at least January -- could result in some districts getting less money.
State lawmakers raised concerns about the program in September after a state audit warned that new admissions criteria could dramatically increase costs.
One school system increased the number of students identified as gifted 168 percent by using new "multiple criteria" eligibility rules implemented by the Department of Education last year, according to the state audit.
The audit report also showed some districts had no students in the program for high-achievers, while others had thousands.
Schools receive up to $1,169 extra for children in gifted programs meant to help exceptional students.
The program's budget -- including annual funding schools would get for students even if they weren't in gifted classes -- has increased from $51.2 million in 1995-96 to $69.7 million this year.
The criteria were initially changed after media reports in 1994 pointed out that white students were five times as likely as black students to be selected for gifted classes.
At the time, the state was using only IQ tests to determine eligibility, and critics charged that standard eliminated students who were intellectually gifted but don't test well and those who may have been gifted in other areas.
The state attempted to fix that problem by developing a new method of choosing gifted students that considers a student's mental ability, creativity and motivation.
Auditors lauded the change, but said the DOE couldn't furnish any proof of the program's performance.
The new proposal more clearly defines who is qualified to evaluate applications for the program and how applications would be assessed, tightens the grade point average standards to ensure only top students are considered, allows limited use of outside test data, and mandates evaluations of the program by local systems.
Also, children would not be eligible for the program solely on the basis of "mental ability tests," according to a DOE summary of changes. That, says Rep. Charlie Smith, D-St. Marys, may violate the state gifted education law he wrote a few years ago.
J.T. Williams of Stockbridge, who was serving on the board when the "multiple criteria" rule was approved, said members weren't told it would bring a huge increase in the number of students classified as gifted.
"A lot more students are qualifying as gifted," said Williams, one of two holdovers from Gov. Zell Miller's board purge last December. "The systems are drawing a lot more money than before, and that wasn't the intent."
Sally Krisel, who runs the Department of Education's gifted section, said about 4 percent of Georgia's more than 1.3 million students were classified as gifted before the change, or about 52,000. Now, it's closer to 5 percent, about 65,000.
"We just did not know what the increase would be," she said. "It's increased, but I don't think it's opened the floodgates."
She noted one goal was to increase the number of top black students identified as gifted. She told the board minority participation has increased slightly since the change.
"Do we need to identify more minority students? Yes, we do," she said.