Originally created 05/29/99

Barnes ponders reforms



ATLANTA -- The last time a governor named a panel to consider reforming public schools, the state was facing a legal challenge because of a drastically uneven system of funding education.

By the time the work was complete in 1985, everything from teacher evaluations to curriculum requirements were changed, and massive funding was funnelled into Georgia schools.

"We had to almost reinvent the wheel. I'm not sure you have to do that at present," said Joe Frank Harris, the governor who became the father of Georgia's Quality Basic Education law, which remains on the books.

"We were interested in keeping the education system out of court. We accomplished that."

Mr. Harris' protege, Gov. Roy Barnes, is expected to name a task force Tuesday to review QBE and the future of the state's 1.3-million-student public education system.

With about 4,500 seniors missing graduation this year because they couldn't pass a section of the exit exam after several tries, with SAT scores ranking 49th in the country and with four in 10 fourth-graders reading below a basic level, the panel has much ground to cover before the General Assembly meets in January.

Mr. Barnes will likely follow Mr. Harris' lead by putting the business community, not teacher groups and education associations, in charge of helping develop the reforms.

"There are going to be a ton of business folks hiring these kids when they leave school," Mr. Barnes said. "(Employers) know better what we need in our education system than anybody in the education system."

However, in some ways, the urgency differs from what it was when Mr. Harris took over as governor in 1983.

Mr. Harris did not have to face parents worried that their children

would succumb to the latest campus shooting spree.

Still, the school system had similar, if not worse, academic problems. And, Mr. Harris remembered, the state faced a lawsuit because the funding of schools was drastically uneven, depending on location and the affluence of local taxpayers.

"We knew something had to be done or the courts would have stepped in," Mr. Harris said. "Particularly the business community was very much supportive of something being done about improving education. It was really a window of opportunity, and we happened to be in the right place at the right time."

QBE set up a new funding formula to deliver state dollars to school systems based on student needs rather than raw numbers. Education spending has more than tripled.

Yet members of a review committee last year argued the state needed to kick in about $500 million more a year, arguing the law has never been fully funded.

Big money went into teacher salaries. Still, the state's ranking nationally is similar to what it was 10 years ago despite dramatic improvements in the mid-1980s and '90s.

Extra money also aimed to reduce class sizes, although that, too, has remained fairly constant throughout the 1990s.

QBE led to standardized curriculum statewide and increased testing requirements. Educators were supposed to be evaluated to determine whether they would receive raises; however, teachers unions succeeded in using the courts to kill that provision.

Many measurements show improvement since QBE was implemented. For instance, the gap between the state and national average on the college-entrance SAT has shrunk from 74 points out of a possible 1,600 in the mid-1980s to 49 points last year.

However, educators complained that QBE brought a mountain of extra paperwork. And the promised, every-five-years review of QBE and a school rating system were largely forgotten.

"QBE was ready to be revisited when I left office (in 1991), and it hasn't been done," Mr. Harris noted. "It's time to revisit the funding formula, update the total process."

Accountability advocates want to rate schools to determine which ones are failing and get them help. Legislation to do that, using test scores, absenteeism and dropout statistics, was filed during the 1999 General Assembly session by House Education Chairwoman Jeannette Jamieson, D-Toccoa, and House University System Chairman DuBose Porter, D-Dublin.

Mr. Barnes' House floor leader, Rep. Charlie Smith, D-St. Marys, has advocated withholding funds from schools that don't meet standards and setting up a state office of accountability.

Using the Jamieson/Porter bill, a Council for School Performance report suggested about 90 schools out of 1,800 statewide would be labeled as chronically underachieving.

One of the keys to QBE's success in winning legislative approval, Mr. Harris remembered, is that members of his committee toured the state holding public hearings to sell the plan to Georgians.

It also helped that Mr. Harris made sure it dominated the General Assembly session the year it passed.

Mr. Barnes, who as Mr. Harris' Senate floor leader sold QBE to colleagues, has likewise vowed to focus on education during the 2000 session, when he will present a package of school reform measures following his task force's initial report.

"I think Roy is more qualified and better experienced than anyone has ever been to deal with this matter," Mr. Harris said. "He knows what's necessary and what's required."

James Salzer is based in Atlanta and can be reached at (404) 589-8424 or mnews@mindspring.com.