Originally created 01/30/05

Legislators focus on education early



ATLANTA -- From teacher pay to classroom spending to whether evolution should be taught in schools: When it comes to issues lawmakers love to tackle, nothing quite stacks up to education.

This year, the General Assembly is no different, with legislators filing about 30 bills concerning education by the end of the eighth working day of the session. The state Senate has passed two bills this year, both dealing with schools.

Much of the attention so far has been on free or relatively inexpensive programs proposed by Gov. Sonny Perdue: An online "virtual high school" was passed by the Senate on Thursday and his "master teacher" certification won approval from the upper chamber Friday.

But bills dealing with school budgets, and how local districts are allowed to spend their money, are yet to come. And that, some lawmakers say, could be the most important education legislation of them all.

"Money is going to always come back to be the No. 1 issue," said Sen. Regina Thomas, D-Savannah.

Mr. Perdue has avoided introducing the sprawling, catch-all education bills that have been common practice in previous sessions, said Senate Education and Youth Committee Chairman Dan Moody.

"Instead, we have split this into logical pieces in order to focus on the key ingredients," said Mr. Moody, an Alpharetta Republican responsible for guiding Mr. Perdue's agenda through the Senate.

In the Senate, Mr. Perdue has filed his agenda in three pieces of legislation dealing with everything from online courses to school spending. The ideas include:

  • A plan to expand Georgia's distance-learning programs to create the virtual high school within the Department of Education, which would offer advanced courses to students across the state. Mr. Perdue said he got the idea after talking to a Clinch County student who couldn't take Advanced Placement classes, good for college credit, because his local school system couldn't afford to offer the courses.
  • The master teacher program, which would allow teachers with at least three years' experience to get a special certificate for high student achievement and improvement. Those teachers would then be eligible to coach peers in other, lower-performing schools, earning a bonus for doing so. The state would pay the teacher's district for his or her service as a coach.
  • A controversial proposal to once again allow school districts to redirect money they're given to reduce class sizes in state classrooms. The bill would loosen state mandates on the number of children in each class.
  • Generally, the first two proposals have won widespread approval, with both passing the Senate without an opposing vote. An amendment giving public school students the priority over private and home-schooled students in signing up for the virtual high school cleared the way for Democrats to support that initiative.

    But even with those proposals, some local school officials come back to the need for funding. The master teacher program, with a price tag of $1.1 million, is generally a good idea, said Brantley County Superintendent Al Hunter, but he noted that it comes after schools have taken hundreds of millions of dollars in budget cuts during the past three years.

    "I would like to see the austerity cuts restored in the same manner they were taken ñ before we initiate additional programs," Mr. Hunter said.

    Mr. Perdue's solution for dealing with the school funding crunch is twofold: allowing school districts flexibility in using the class-size money while fully funding the pupil enrollment growth in state schools.

    But accounting for new pupils doesn't mean school districts will get back the $333 million in cuts they've sustained in recent years, said Joe Martin, the executive director of a consortium of school districts ñ including Mr. Hunter's ñ suing the state over school funding.

    "The obvious shell game is that all the previous cuts are still there," Mr. Martin said. "So it's hard to get excited about the recommendations (from Perdue)."

    The governor's solution is to give districts more leeway with class sizes, allowing the districts to shoot for a system-wide average number of pupils in each room instead of a set maximum. That means districts can avoid breaking up classes that just barely exceed the cap.

    Democrats have criticized the move, saying the governor is gutting education reforms pushed by then-Gov. Roy Barnes, a Democrat, in 2000.

    As in previous years when Mr. Perdue has won the flexibility for local districts, Democrats have sponsored a constitutional amendment that would set in stone the maximum number of pupils per teacher. Lt. Gov. Mark Taylor, a Democrat who has announced his plans to challenge Mr. Perdue in the 2006 elections, has long backed efforts to shrink class sizes.

    Reach Brandon Larrabee at (404) 681-1701 or brandon.larrabee@morris.com.