Originally created 02/09/00

Committee endorses passage of education reform bill



ATLANTA -- The House Education Committee on Tuesday voted 15-9, essentially along party lines, to recommend passage of Gov. Roy Barnes' education reform bill, defeating six Republican amendments.

Republicans on the committee tried unsuccessfully to change the bill by giving parents in the worst schools state-funded tuition vouchers to private academies. They also failed in their attempt to help Republican state school Superintendent Linda Schrenko retain control of the accountability mechanism for pupils in kindergarten through 12th grade.

Rep. Jeff Williams, R-Snellville, offered the amendment on behalf of Mrs. Schrenko. It would have set up a three-member panel to determine the cutoff for passing grades on pupil tests, but the Department of Education that Mrs. Schrenko heads would administer the tests.

Mr. Barnes' bill would create an Office of Education Accountability under the governor to set cutoff scores, administer tests, audit schools and compile a database on the performance of each of the 1.4 million public school pupils in the state.

"Shifting accountability from one elected official (Mrs. Schrenko), to another, (Mr. Barnes) still lets politics creep into education," Mr. Williams said.

But Democrats stuck together in their opposition.

"This smacks more of politics, not less of politics," Rep. DuBose Porter, D-Dublin, said. "And everybody in this room knows why."

Mr. Barnes' House Floor Leader, Rep. Charlie Smith, said he was unwilling to accept any amendments because he thought the 151-page bill would bog down in the legislative process. He had already made more than 100 changes to the first version introduced last month.

Most members of the Education Committee hadn't seen the latest changes before Tuesday's three-hour meeting. Mr. Smith, D-St. Marys, spent the first hour explaining how the latest draft differed from the original.

It didn't remove the most controversial provision, the ending of tenure for beginning teachers. It did, however, allow teachers already on the job who haven't earned enough seniority to qualify for tenure to receive it once they've worked four years. Teachers who already have tenure would not be affected.

None of the proposed amendments dealt with tenure.

The voucher proposal required little debate because most of the members have discussed the issue on other occasions. Mr. Barnes' bill already would give parents a choice of public schools if their children attend a school graded "D" or "F" two years in a row. The Republican plan would have given parents a choice of private schools, paying slightly more than half the cost of a public education.

Mr. Smith objected to the amendment because he said it wouldn't cover full tuition, leaving in public schools only the poorer families who couldn't afford the balance.

Republicans countered that most of the state's worst schools are in pockets of poverty where few wealthy families live. The main beneficiaries of the vouchers would be poor people, said Rep. Bob Snelling, R-Douglasville.

Reach Walter Jones at (404) 589-8424.