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One of the most pressing issues facing public education in Georgia today is how we are going to formulate and mandate the standards that we will use in our classrooms that reflect, first and foremost, academic excellence while incorporating fundamental Georgia values. Last year, the General Assembly took a critical first step with the passage of SB 204. The bill deals with the accreditation of our public schools and what standards should apply in this process to achieve our desired academic goals for our children.

Presently, there is basically one group that accredits the vast majority of public schools in our state, Cognia, a private entity. Prior to this bill, Cognia and others like it, set their own standards for accreditation, with little or no direct input from The State Board of Education. On the Cognia website, they cite as their number one standard, “Leaders cultivate and sustain a culture that demonstrates respect, fairness, equity, and inclusion, and is free from bias.” While this may be a laudatory goal, many see this as a statement of social policy rather than an emphasis on scholastic success. To many, this is a problem. They feel that academic achievement should be the first and only critical criteria when judging our schools’ performance. SB 204 begins the process of re-directing our state education efforts.

First and foremost, the legislation will require the State Board of Education to promulgate the standards for our public schools, rather than a private entity, and the focus will be on academic success. These standards will also reflect the values we expect in our classrooms. The key emphasis will be to better educate our children in preparing them for the real world. It may be admirable to become a socially conscious individual, but if that person cannot read, write or do math, he or she will struggle in life. Fundamental academics is the key.

The second critical part of the legislation is that it separates the process of accreditation from the business side of consulting for the purpose of correcting deficiencies that the reviewers themselves identified in the accrediting process. Presently an accrediting business, such as Cognia, can do both, thereby creating a clear conflict of interest. SB 204 requires that the two services be separated. As most recall, this is the same scenario that occurred with Enron and Arthur Anderson, resulting in the demise of both businesses. This bill will eliminate that possibility by removing the appearance or the reality of a conflict of interest.

Finally, many supporters of SB 204 believe that the legislation does not go far enough and that Georgia should create an entirely independent commission to oversee this critical mission. While discussed, this ultimately was not in the bill that passed, but it will be an issue for consideration if this historic re-alignment of standards and values falls short of desired results.

While there are other aspects of the legislation, SB 204 accomplishes two major goals. 1. Mandatory Georgia Standards for public education focusing on academic achievement. 2. Eliminates potential conflicts of interest in the accrediting process by separating accreditation from consulting. Both are a great first step in putting academic excellence first and foremost for our school age kids. They both need and deserve it.

Chuck Clay is senior counsel at Freeman Mathis & Gary, LLP

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