Originally created 04/16/04

Hearing addresses act



It wasn't televised on C-Span, the witnesses weren't sworn in in dramatic fashion, and the meeting hall wasn't under a giant dome. But Thursday's Congressional field hearing still managed to bring a little bit of Washington to the Garden City.

U.S. Rep. Max Burns, R-Ga., played host to the two-hour hearing by the U.S. House Education and Workforce Committee. Three committee members invited witnesses and the public to a second-floor room in the Augusta-Richmond County Library for a talk about President Bush's No Child Left Behind Act.

Georgia Schools Superintendent Kathy Cox testified that the act allows enough wiggle room for school districts to meet pupil achievement requirements.

Georgia has been able to define academic indicators, decide what constitutes a persistently-dangerous school in Georgia and use up to half of non-Title-I funds as they see fit, she said.

"Clearly, as a result of the statutory flexibility in the law, Georgia has been able to meet the unique needs of our systems and schools while fully complying with the spirit and the provisions of the legislation," she said.

But Ms. Cox said schools are struggling to meet some standards, including a rule requiring 95 percent of pupils to participate in testing.

She said the standards hit Georgia "like a ton of bricks." In Georgia, 187 schools were put on the needs-improvement list for failing to reach that percentage.

Ms. Cox praised the U.S. Department of Education for easing those rules last month and allowing schools to average test participation rates over three years.

No Child Left Behind, which received broad bipartisan support in Congress, calls for mandatory standardized testing, improved teacher training, smaller class sizes and an opportunity for parents to transfer their children from failing schools to better ones.

One committee member, U.S. Rep. Denise Majette, an Atlanta Democrat, criticized President Bush during Thursday's session for providing less funding than technically authorized by the act, saying it shortchanges school districts trying to improve pupil achievement.

"As I talk to educators throughout the state of Georgia, they agree that additional federal funding is needed," she said.

But U.S. Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio, displayed several graphs that show education funding has risen sharply under the Republican-controlled Congress.

"I do think the money is there," said Dr. Eugene Hickok, acting U.S. deputy secretary of education, who testified at the hearing.

The goal of Thursday's hearing was to show that Mr. Bush is allowing latitude for school systems to meet the law's requirements. Similar hearings have been held in Colorado, Ohio, South Carolina and the District of Columbia.

About 50 people attended the hearing, including several educators from Richmond and Columbia counties.

Paula Baker, the principal of C.T. Walker Traditional Magnet School in Augusta, said the hearing was informative.

"There is a lot Georgia needs to do, and I think NCLB (No Child Left Behind) is going in the direction that Georgia needs to go," she said. "But there is not enough funding there to support what needs to be done."

Columbia County School Board Member Mildred Blackburn said she is concerned about federal funding to help special education students meet the law's requirements.

"The Individual Disabilities Education Act has never been fully funded," she said. "The way it was written, the federal government would pay 40 percent, the state would pay 40 percent and the local government would pay 20 percent. This year the federal government will pay 20 percent."

Gloria Hamilton, the director of Columbia County's Title I Instructional Improvement office, praised the law's flexibility, especially on test participation rules.

"Hopefully it's going to help us do better," she said.

Staff writer Melissa Hall and Associated Press writer Lori Johnston contributed to this report.

Reach Greg Rickabaugh at (706) 828-3851 or greg.rickabaugh@augustachronicle.com.