ATLANTA -- Believing they've found a powerful friend for educators, teachers around Georgia are praising Gov. Sonny Perdue's plan to give local school systems more say over funding, curriculum and class size.
"Perdue is really trying to do what's right and they are finally including us in part of the process, which is something (former Gov. Roy Barnes) did not," said Richard Thomas, a middle school science teacher in Houston County.
Perdue's legislation, which he calls STARS (Students + Teachers + Accountability + Respect Success), would delay or eliminate key pieces of the education package Barnes pushed through the Legislature three years ago.
Many educators punished Barnes at the polls because they said he made them a scapegoat for the problems in public schools. Now, they are looking to Perdue to fix education in Georgia, which ranks 50th in SAT scores and has 400 schools that failed to meet state and federal goals.
"Barnes treated us like we weren't worth anything," Thomas said. "His attitude was condescending and it was very clear that he had very little respect for teachers."
The governor's legislation gives local school boards and his new state Board of Education, headed by Republican Wanda Barrs, the power to make many of the key decisions in public education.
The new board is expected to come up with a new accountability plan by the end of the year, and local systems would have more control over how they spend the $6 billion in state funding that flows to districts each year.
"No longer will districts have to fill out forms that document how many boxes of chalk are at each school," Perdue said.
Republican State School Superintendent Kathy Cox said micromanaging school systems is futile.
"There's just no way for state policy-makers in a two-block radius around the Capitol to know what's best for 180 school districts across Georgia," Cox said.
Columbia County teacher Judy Teasley agrees.
"You look at the diversity of all the school districts and you realize something has to change," she said. "Does that mean you're going to have to take a one-size-fits-all approach like Barnes? I kind of doubt it. It wouldn't work."
Some Democratic legislators say Perdue's education bill is incomplete.
"If you give power back to the systems that are doing badly, then what benefit is it to education?" asked House Education Chairman Bob Holmes of Atlanta. "All (Perdue) talked about during the campaign was returning education to the people, but that's about as far as he's got."
Democrat Cathy Henson, former chairwoman of the state board of education, said Perdue's legislation waters down accountability.
"This bill is trying to make everyone happy - the students, the teachers, the superintendents - but who is going to make the tough decisions and at what cost to student achievement? I think it's critical that as you give more flexibility, you do not require less accountability."
Holmes the governor's bill has "zero" chance of passing without changes. But Holmes agrees with some Perdue proposals, including restoring tenure rights to teachers.
Before passage of Barnes' education law, teachers with three years' experience could not be fired unless the school showed just cause in a hearing. Perdue's legislation gives dismissed teachers the right to petition the Professional Standards Commission for an appeal.
"We want good principals to be able to get rid of ineffective teachers, not bad principals to be able to get rid of good teachers," Perdue said.
Tim Callahan, spokesman for the Professional Association of Georgia Educators, says he'd like to see stronger language about fair-dismissal rights.
"It's sort of a hollow victory for teachers because there is no mandatory hearing and the PSC can choose whether they want to hear it or not," he said.
Still, Callahan says his organization stands behind Perdue.
"It's kind of unprecedented to sit there with a governor and know you're going to be a part of the process."
A look at Gov. Sonny Perdue's proposed changes to public education compared to former Gov. Roy Barnes' education law:
Under Barnes: Every school is required to create an advisory council of two parents, two teachers, two business representatives and the principal.
Under Perdue: Eliminates the seven-member cap on councils and eliminates the requirement to have parents or business representatives on the council.
Under Barnes: Teachers hired in 2001 or later are not eligible for the same fair-dismissal rights as before, when teachers with three years' experience could not be fired unless the school showed just cause.
Under Perdue: Once teachers sign their fourth contract, they have a right to petition the Professional Standards Commission for an appeal if fired. This applies to teachers hired after July 1, 2000.
Under Barnes: Middle schools are required to spend 30 minutes extra a day on core academic instruction - about 5 hours in all - which cuts into art, music and physical education classes.
Under Perdue: Lets local school boards decide how much time to devote to classes.
Under Barnes: Had expenditure controls on media, professional development and staff development.
Under Perdue: Takes expenditure controls off of media and professional development and allow local schools to decide what to do with that money and where to use it. Expenditure control remains for direct instruction, which covers teacher salaries and materials used in classrooms.
On the Net:
Department of Education: http://www.doe.k12.ga.us/index.asp
Professional Association of Georgia Educators: http://www.pageinc.org/
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