ATLANTA – Lawmakers won’t have a chance to consider the recommendations of the governor’s Education Reform Commission for months, but here’s an early peek at what they’re likely to see.
Gov. Nathan Deal assembled a collection of school administrators and legislators and instructed them to “be bold” in coming up with ways to remake public schools. Among the areas to concentrate on are the formula for allocating state money to local districts, strengthening preschools and streamlining advancement for students as they master their coursework.
The most controversial matters though concern expansion of parental choice in schooling and teacher pay and benefits. Even as the proposals are being formulated for final approval by the commission, teacher groups are already lobbying against them and challenging the integrity of the commission members.
“What we see happening here in Georgia is the same thing that is happening in North Carolina, Kansas, Louisiana and other states where the agenda is to destroy public education in a systematic way; to bring in for-profit charters that are not required to hire certified teachers so these for-profit corporations can make money on the backs of children,” wrote John Palmer, spokesman for Teachers Rally to Advocate for Georgia Insurance Choices or TRAGIC.
Commission Chairman Charles Knapp, who also heads the state charter school commission and is a former president of the University of Georgia, has said he wants to finalize the recommendations next month. After the commission members vote, their report will go to Deal and the General Assembly who will first decide what to translate into legislation and budget changes. Finally, lawmakers will vote sometime after convening in January.
Most observers expect the committee hearings, debates and lobbying will make education reform one of the most visible issues of the 2016 legislative session. Adding to the significance is the knowledge that the last time such sweeping funding revisions were made, they stayed in place more than three decades.
“Georgia’s last school funding formula change stood for 30 years in part because it is so difficult to reshape it into something clearly better,” wrote the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute, a left-leaning think tank. “Georgia needs to take time get this right.”
Until the commission votes, no proposals have been formally agreed to. Knapp, who bristles at what he characterized as rumors floating around the internet, often reminds the audience of lobbyists, activists and reporters at commission meetings that there is only “preliminary consensus” on these ideas.
“Don’t believe any rumors unless you hear them from me,” he quipped, quoting a former New Orleans mayor.
So, here are the recommendations that have drawn preliminary consensus.
The goal is to shift from what Knapp calls funding activities — like instruction, counseling and administration – to funding students. That makes it easier for the funding to follow the child who switches schools or takes classes at a college. School choice and early advancement are key goals of Deal and Republican legislative leaders.
The numerical details are still being calculated, but the plan is for students in grades 4-8 to qualify for the base funding amount, which is around $2,700 this year. Other categories of students would be mathematically weighted to get more, such as high school, the gifted, the disabled, those taking job-training courses, those from poor families and anyone who isn’t a native English speaker. The biggest added amount will go to students in kindergarten through third grade.
Of course, many students will be in multiple categories, earning added funding for their district for each. For example, one in three Georgia students comes from a household with income low enough to qualify for free lunch, and some of those will also be gifted or disabled.
One criticism already is that the commission calculates its recommendations based on the current state funding to districts rather than at the amount they should be given under the existing formula in state law.
“The committee faces the challenging task of reconciling a formula that distributes funds based on an estimated cost of educating each child with a state budget that, for the past 14 years, did not allocate enough money to public schools to cover those costs,” the Budget and Policy Institute wrote.
The result, opponents argue, is to effectively cement into place a $466 million deficit.
Knapp told a group of local administrators two weeks ago that he expects Deal to close that gap in his plan for next year’s budget.
Teacher compensation and benefits
Deal’s former policy aide for education frequently cites statistics showing no benefit in student performance comes from teachers holding advanced degrees. So the commission is poised to recommend ending pay raises for new teachers who get them.
Instead, for new hires, districts would get a flat amount equal to the average teacher’s salary in the state, about $51,000 today. Funds for veteran teachers would still be appropriated under the existing “training and experience” matrix.
All but two districts already have the authority to pay teachers different from how the state appropriates funds for them. None have strayed from the state’s current method, although a handful of them are considering alternatives to reward performance or entice those with sought-after skills.
However, the commission members seem to agree that any districts that take a different approach should be required to give veteran teachers the option to remain under the current system.
“I think we need to make clear that we intend for current teachers to be protected,” said Rep. Terry England, a commission member and chairman of the House Appropriations Committee.
Teacher groups still view the proposal with alarm.
“Salary proposals that fail to account for teacher training and experience may create inequities among veteran and new educators,” notes a statement from the Professional Association of Georgia Educators, the state’s largest teacher organization. “PAGE supports the recruitment of the best and brightest to our profession and supports raising beginning teacher salaries.”
The chairman of the commission’s Teacher Compensation, Recruitment and Retention Committee, Rep. Mike Dudgeon, said one reason for the change is to allow districts to restructure salaries to help them recruit, especially in unpopular areas or hard-to-staff subjects like science.
“If the minimum salary is $33,000, that seems too low to us, but we’re practical people,” said Dudgeon, R-Johns Creek.
But PAGE disputes his logic.
“Redistribution of existing state funding for educator salaries without state budgetary enhancements has the potential to create winners and losers,” the group wrote.
Another teacher group is more outspoken.
“Any pay scale that fails to incentivize experience and education can only be construed as an attempt to drive teachers out of the profession before they reach retirement,” wrote TRAGIC’s Palmer.
Dudgeon said his committee is also recommending free college tuition to future teachers if they stay on the job for a certain period or else repayment with interest. It also recommends a full year of student teaching instead of one semester and extra pay for the veteran teachers who supervise them. Veterans would also get extra money for mentoring newer colleagues. But the extras would not be available to those who opt to stick with the current pay schedule if their districts change.
“It would be like having your cake and eating it, too,” he said.
The committee also recommends no longer offering new teachers a guaranteed retirement amount based on their years in the job. Instead, the state would make the same annual contribution to all new teachers’ retirement plans the way most private companies do.
Boosting preschool quality is the major goal of the commission’s Early Childhood Committee. The challenge, according to Amy Jacobs, chair of the committee and the state’s commissioner of early learning, is that too few parents can afford daycare centers that pay enough to hire workers with professional training and small classes.
“Quality costs, and parents often have to choose childcare that they can afford,” she said.
So the commission is considering tax credits. Parents who enroll their children in daycare centers rated by the state would get them as would those daycare centers. Teachers who get additional training would get credits, as well.
Plus, Jacobs’ committee calls for added taxpayer funding for daycare subsidies and for a marketing campaign to convince parents to use state-rated daycares.
Move On When Ready
A long-time goal of Deal’s is to make it easier for students to take on more challenging material as they master the basics without having to wait for their age group to catch up, including college courses in high school. When he created the commission, he included a committee focused on removing hurdles.
The committee has dozens of ideas, such as offering end-of-course tests every nine weeks instead of just once a year.
“We’re not talking about doing this to move the student to the next grade,” said the committee’s chairman, Matt Arthur, deputy commissioner of the Technical College System of Georgia.
Other ideas include eliminating “seat time” minimums for promotion, smaller classes, joint projects between grade levels and training parents on how to support their children.
High school students who have completed the basic classes can already finish their diploma by taking certain courses at technical colleges. The committee recommends expanding the courses that qualify, as long as the students still take a minimum number of math and English classes.
“This is one of the most exciting things we’re doing,” said Dick Yarborough, a member of the commission and the only member who also served on the panel that wrote the last wholesale revision of state funding.
Proposals before the commission to encourage more enrollment in alternative schools are drawing fire from critics on the left and the right side of the political spectrum for being too generous or not generous enough.
Among them are proposals to ensure buildings used by charter schools are exempt from local property tax. Schools that have bought shopping centers to serve as classrooms where some stores remain in business wind up being declared for-profit entities for tax purposes, but the commission wants them to enjoy the same tax breaks as any other school.
Another plan is to clarify the law requiring local districts to make unused buildings available for charter schools. It would also give charter school organizers a way to appeal any denial of unused buildings.
Teacher groups who oppose for-profit companies that operate charter schools see these proposals as more attempts to bypass state regulations.
“Some on this commission want to hand over public buildings and facilities, tax-free, to for-profit corporations,” TRAGIC’s Palmer wrote. “This will shift taxpayer property and taxpayer dollars to corporations whose guiding principles are profits, not children.”
Conservative groups blasted proposals to expand tax credits for individuals who donate money to organizations offering scholarships to low-income students attending private schools. The Washington-based Cato Foundation chastised the commission for not aiming higher.
Limiting it to low-income families limits its political support, argues Cato policy analyst Jason Bedrick.
“Moreover, a family’s need is not always reflected on their tax statements. Families in which there was an illness, a parent lost his or her job, there is a student with special needs, or other exigent circumstances may be denied assistance under a strict income eligibility requirement,” he wrote.
Among the remaining tasks of the commission is to calculate the costs of the recommendations, which is likely to be one hurdle to acceptance.
Deal has instructed other state agencies not to ask for more money next year which will save the increased revenue from rising tax collections for at least some of the commission’s recommendations. To cushion the transition to the new funding formula, the commission intends to get extra money for districts that would otherwise see a decrease, which will lessen some of the political opposition.
But opposition from other quarters is already mounting. The teacher groups aren’t waiting for the commission to complete its work to begin their assault on the recommendations they object to.
“Educators and other stakeholders are strongly encouraged to contact the (Education Reform Commission) to provide feedback on the compensation and other ERC recommendations,” notes Margaret Ciccarelli, PAGE’s director of legislative services.
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