Reviving academic freedom: Solutions for Georgia

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In our Georgia Constitution, local school boards, accountable to and elected by parents and citizens in each school district, are given authority over the public schools in their county or city. Throughout Georgia history, parents, teachers and locally elected board members have had the authority to select curriculum, choose and evaluate school administrators and teachers, and provide oversight for the local public schools.

How did we lose our academic freedom? Through grants, legislation, and accreditation.

In 2001, our U.S. Congress, with bipartisan support, reauthorized the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965. The long title of the act was, “An act to close the achievement gap with accountability, flexibility, and choice, so that no child is left behind.”

Notice the use of the word flexibility in the title of the legislation. All the states were required to adopt standards and measure progress towards those standards. All students were scheduled to be “on grade level” by the 2013-2014 school year or the schools would be labeled as failing and subject to sanctions.

Clearly, the word flexibility does not apply to any part of the legislation. Demographic data from subgroups would be analyzed to ensure “Adequate Yearly Progress” for all subgroups of students.

In Georgia, state legislation was passed to reflect the new federal requirements and the Georgia Performance Standards were implemented and assessed. Schools were rated on student achievement, using tests tied to specific grade level standards.

Georgia’s schools felt the pressure to increase test scores. In Atlanta, some administrators and teachers resorted to habitual cheating to boost student test scores and make Adequate Yearly Progress.

The Elementary and Secondary Education Act has to be reauthorized every five years. It expired in 2007, but Congress has been funding it through extensions ever since.

Although a waiver was not necessary because the act had expired, Dr. John Barge, Georgia’s state school superintendent, submitted a waiver from the Elementary and Secondary Education Act to the U.S. Department of Education. In addition, Georgia applied to receive money through the federal Race to the Top grant competition. Georgia’s grant application was written in cooperation with consultants paid for by the Gates Foundation, a partner with the private holders of the Common Core copyright.

As a condition to receive the grant money and the waiver, Georgia was required to adopt the Common Core standards, change the way Georgia schools are rated, participate in a longitudinal data system, change the way teachers and school leaders are evaluated, institute a new testing system, require online learning for every public school student, require online end of course tests, and much more.

The Race to the Top grant awarded Georgia $400 million, but to date Georgia has only received approximately $200 million, with no expectation for any additional funds. The waiver was granted by the U. S. Department of Education on Feb. 9, 2012. According to a White House spokesperson, the purpose of the waivers was to provide additional flexibility. State education related legislation was changed to reflect the new guidelines outlined in the grant application and requested in the waiver.

After all these changes were made, Georgia teachers and administrators began implementing the new English Language Arts and math standards, new teacher evaluation systems, new school rating systems, and much more.

Instead of offering more flexibility, the NCLB waivers placed new restrictions on Georgia teachers and students. Politicians continued to speak of flexibility, but they could not change the fact that academic freedom had been lost.

Teachers and parents found out that the new math standards were one to two years behind our former Georgia Performance Standards, but there was nothing they could do to change the standards or the state run testing system.

To make matters worse, teacher and school leader evaluations would be tied to student mastery of lower level standards as measured by rigid testing systems. Citizens alerted their local school board members, but changes in standards for local school board members and a newly minted “code of ethics” as required by Georgia’s state legislature prevented local school board members from making any changes to the new standards or the testing requirements.

Our regional accreditation agency, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, was purchased by AdvancED, a private company that accredits schools in all 50 states and 65 foreign countries. The newly defined roles and responsibilities of local school board members, as authorized by the state legislature, were instituted.

Local school board members’ primary responsibility would no longer be to independently represent constituent views, but to maintain accreditation. Authority was taken away from locally elected school board members and given to the privately held accreditation agency. This agency, AdvancED, was a business partner with the Council of Chief State Schools Officers, a private organization involved in copyrighting the Common Core standards.

How can we get our academic freedom back?

We can have academic freedom here in Georgia. There are several ways to accomplish this:

1. Repeal all the state legislation related to the waivers and the Race to the Top grant conditions. Since the federal legislation has expired and there will not be any additional grant money, there are no federal requirements to implement Common Core, restrictive testing programs, and everything else Georgia was required to do to obtain the waiver and the grant.

2. When we do testing at the state level for accountability, the tests need to be based on basic skills such as reading level, math level, and writing level to be used for placement purposes. Testing should not be tied to restrictive government grade level standards. If we use tests that measure skills over multiple grade bands, our students will be able to show progress.

3. Do not use private accreditation agencies that are not subject to open records requirements. The local school systems need to be accountable, first and foremost, to local parents and citizens. Accreditation needs to be managed by elected officials who are accountable to the people who elected them.

Let’s revive academic freedom here in Georgia. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge. Let us begin by praying the simple prayer that Georgia students prayed in public schools before 1963, “Almighty God, we acknowledge our dependence on Thee, and we beg Thy blessings upon us, our parents, our teachers, and our Country.”

We can get back to the principles that made our country the most prosperous and generous nation on earth. We can teach our children to honor God. It all begins in individual homes with parents, families, and teachers working with school leaders to teach our students how to read, write, and do the math they need to think for themselves and make new discoveries and inventions, free from government restrictions.

Let the spirit of American inventiveness return to our great state of Georgia as we build the foundation of knowledge that our children can rely on for years to come.

Mary Kay Bacallao
Fayetteville, Ga.

[Bacallao is a former member of the Fayette County Board of Education.]