After wading through 125 pages of Georgia Gov. Roy Barnes' "A Plus Education Reform Act of 2000," this newspaper finds there are exceptionally good initiatives along with some incredibly dubious ones that shift power dramatically to the state andaway from the local elected school boards and individual school principals.
The governor must be commended for going head-to-head with the teachers' unions that always defend teacher tenure. (We hope Barnes' proposal to eliminate this flawed process isn't simply a bargaining chip, to be dropped later if the teacher unions go along with him on his local, unelected school council idea.)
Public school teachers enjoy tenure-like job protections and it takes years to fire an incompetent educator. Making it easier to jettison the deadwood is necessary radical reform, just as is Barnes' idea of differential pay.
Perhaps Atlanta Journal columnist Jim Wooten says it best: "The differential might be for disciplines in short supply, such as math and science, or short in some areas of the state. Unions have resisted because they want no distinctions made among teachers. It's a foolish position, of course. Physics instructors are more valuable than those who teach history simply because they're in much more limited supply."
Furthermore, Barnes advocates limited school choice within a public system -- a step in the right direction.
But now, here's the grim news.
Respected educator Dr. Franklin Shumake notes House Bill 1187 -- Barnes' enabling legislation -- creates 1,800 unelected school "councils" that could override local elected school boards on budgets, curriculum, staffing, dress codes, employment and "any matter" they choose.
In addition to the state Board of Education and the college system's Board of Regents (which consist of gubernatorial appointees), H.B. 1187 adds three new education bureaucracies: 1) An EducationCoordinating Council; 2) Office of Educational Accountability and 3) Governor's Steering Committee.
As Shumake wryly notes, it would "be interesting to watch all these bodies reporting to each other and recommending to each other, with the common target being the individual local schools, school systems, colleges and various boards and councils."
The state Board of Education is a funded bureaucracy already in place; why not utilize its staff and resources when it comes to coordination and accountability?
Politically, Barnes is popular statewide and his party controls both houses of the General Assembly. Ironically, though, polls show George W. Bush is popular in the Peach State as the March GOP presidential primary looms -- and the Texas governor is spending money on TV media spots touting local control of education. Some Democrats, especially in south Georgia, note that restless constituents are receptive to Bush's "local" message as opposed to the idea of more control from Atlanta. (A footnote: When Democrats in Kentucky's legislature instituted local school councils, the state Senate turned Republican after the next election.)
No matter how the politics shakes out, let's hope for the best of both political worlds: Barnes convinces Democrats to institute his necessary bold reforms, while Republicans and independent Democrats water down or derail the sections of H.B. 1187 that erode local control over local affairs.