School reform hot issue at Capitol

0
24

The Georgia General Assembly will convene next week with the usual excitement and optimism of a new year. The informal kickoff is the traditional Sunday night Wild Hog Supper at the Georgia Railroad Depot. Everyone who is somebody or aspires to be somebody attends this festive event.

Governor Nathan Deal, Lieutenant Governor Casey Cagle, state legislators, state agency heads, bureaucrats, lobbyists, business leaders, local elected officials, members of the press and key political party officials will be there to socialize while establishing relationships and influencing votes.

I have been there and was impressed with the skill of some politicians working the room to promote political ideas or their candidacy for higher offices.

The real business of the legislature begins Monday and you can expect early fireworks on the topic of education reform. The seeds for reform were planted last year when Governor Nathan Deal appointed an Education Reform Commission to comprehensively review Georgia’s k-12 educational system and make recommendations to fix problems that exist. The blue ribbon commission included some highly influential people and was chaired by well-respected Chuck Knapp, former president of the University of Georgia.

The commission worked diligently throughout 2015 and submitted a comprehensive report to the governor and General Assembly in time for action during this legislative session.

Gov. Deal is expected to identify education reform priorities in the 2016 State of the State Address and his floor leaders will introduce legislation to adopt the proposed package during the first few days of the session.

The ultimate reform package that may be adopted by the General Assembly promises to be significant but will not be the first attempt to bring about substantial change to education in Georgia. During my lifetime there have been three similar efforts spearheaded by governors, each creating a blueprint for the future and labeled with an educational acronym.

First, there was the Minimum Foundation Program for Education (MFPE) pushed through a reluctant Georgia legislature by Governor Herman Talmadge in 1949. The state fully funded MFPE in 1951 with a new 3 percent sales tax. The MFPE is the standard bearer among education reform efforts in Georgia and elements of the legislation are still reflected in 21st century educational programs and school funding formulas.

The second significant reform, initiated by Gov. Jimmy Carter in 1974, was labeled the Adequate Program for Education in Georgia (APEG). The APEG law made major strides toward equalizing state funding for school systems by increasing district power equalization grants.

The legislature by embracing APEG finally acknowledged that one mill of property tax raised considerably more dollars per pupil in affluent suburban counties than in poor rural counties and the state funding formula needed to correct the inequity in 1974.

The third major education reform package was the Quality Basic Education Act (QBE) in 1985 during the tenure of Gov. Joe Frank Harris. It is unfortunate that QBE is not fully funded and there is a $250 million annual shortfall in state money which puts local school system budgets in jeopardy.

QBE has served the state well for almost 30 years, but most experts agree it is time for reform. Let’s hope the legislature gives us more substance than just another catchy acronym to be tossed around by professed experts in school finance.

This is an election year and legislators will be reluctant to step on the toes of voters by raising taxes for education as they did last year for transportation.

Another sticky issue is the proposal that local school districts implement a merit pay system to compensate teachers rather than using the traditional salary schedule based on educational level and experience.

The teacher lobby and many local school boards will oppose merit pay for a variety of reasons. Teachers represent a huge voting bloc and legislators with vulnerable seats will avoid the fight. It is likely only a token pilot merit pay proposal will survive the legislative process.

Another feature of the reform package is to strengthen pre-kindergarten programs by pumping more money into them and raising the pay of pre-school teachers.

I’m sorry to report there will be considerable resistance from competing private pre-school interests as well as from a few misguided people who think all public early childhood programs are simply expensive babysitting services. It is unlikely this part of the report will be a priority when funds are appropriated.

The commission report includes recommendations that the state give local systems more flexibility in budgeting and that it direct more taxpayer dollars to charter schools.

The most intriguing idea in the report is a recommendation that the state allocate more money per pupil for older students than younger students. The rationale is that high schools need labs and more specialized programs, which are more expensive.

The argument on the other side is that high schools are larger than elementary schools and can be operated more efficiently. This issue will be debated widely in the Education and Appropriations committees and it is doubtful the proposal will gain traction in the legislature.

My crystal ball prediction is that a comprehensive education reform package will be passed in 2016 giving more dollars and greater spending flexibility to local school systems. The new funding formula will further eliminate inequities between school systems and parents will be given more choices. It is likely charter schools will be the big winners.

Enough said!

[Scott Bradshaw, a Peachtree City resident, is a residential developer and real estate broker. He may be contacted at rand5474@bellsouth.net.]