Revised lesson plan

Educators cheer and jeer Perdue's school proposals. Wait'll they see what the feds have in store for them.

Sonny Perdue gave Georgia educators warm and fuzzy feelings during his campaign for governor. After then-Gov. Roy Barnes antagonized many of them with his far-reaching reforms, Perdue was full of talk about trust, local control and respect for classroom professionals.

But now that the talk of the campaign is over and action in the Legislature is eminent, feelings are a little less warm and increasingly fuzzy.

In a Feb. 18 press conference Perdue and state School Superintendent Kathy Cox — also new to her office — unveiled a pair of bills that Cox says will "dramatically improve education for Georgia's children."

And maybe they will.

As introduced, however, the bills do less for kids than for teachers and administrators — and even the educators themselves aren't entirely happy with them. While teachers would regain "fair dismissal" rights they lost under Barnes' A-Plus Education Reform Act of 2000, they'd only get some of those rights back. Not only that: Perdue's budget cuts include their cost-of-living raises.

While superintendents would get back the flexibility to spend state funds they lost under Barnes, Perdue's mid-year budget for the current school year and his proposed 2003-04 budget would cut hundreds of millions of dollars in state money for local systems.

What legislators received were two bills that contain surprisingly few details for such sweeping changes. When Barnes proposed his own reforms, it was only after a series of task forces involving business leaders, teachers, school administrators, parents and education gurus. A-Plus mandates smaller class sizes, imposes strict spending controls on local systems, eliminates tenure-like rights for teachers, and finances a uniform system for keeping up with data on school spending and performance.

Not all Barnes' reforms were unpopular with educators. For example, most agreed that there should be fewer students in each class. What administrators didn't like was losing their control over spending state money. And teachers were hopping mad that Barnes took away the right to appeal if they were fired. Typically Democratic voters, many educators abandoned the party and helped elect Perdue.

Elected in an upset, Perdue had to follow up on his promise to reverse many of Barnes' reforms quickly. No surprise then that House Education Committee Chairman Bob Holmes says Perdue's proposed bills are a bit thin on substance.

"I sense that none of this stuff has been examined and nobody knows the implications of it," the Atlanta Democrat says. "The devil's in the details."

Perdue aides predict the education package will pass this year, but the bills may have a hard time just getting past Holmes. Since the governor didn't do his homework, the chairman says, the committee will have to do it for him.

In addition to restoring local spending control and some fair-dismissal rights, Perdue's bills also would shelve smaller class-size mandates, reduce core-curriculum requirements, and fold a separate auditing agency into the Department of Education.

Holmes argues that legislation so important should contain more details. He's open to the possibility that some Barnes mandates were too strict but argues that he can't be sure because he hasn't been presented with any data or public input.

"The reason that the former reforms were created is some schools weren't doing what they were supposed to be doing," Holmes argues.

What school systems are supposed to be doing, Cox counters, is whatever it takes to educate kids. And to find ways to do that best, she argues, schools need the flexibility to try out a variety of ideas.

"When you go to these schools that are making a difference, they have used local funds to do the things that are making the difference," she says.

School administrators are eager to see Perdue's legislation pass. Right now, however, they're simply trying to figure out how they'll absorb the financial blow from Perdue's budget. The fact that they're still operating under Barnes' strict rules about where and how funds can be spent isn't helping.

"My argument is at least give us some flexibility to move funds around where systems need them to make ends meet," says Herb Garrett, executive director of the Georgia School Superintendents Association. "We're talking about hundreds of millions in budget cuts, so give us a break on that."

The DeKalb County School Board is one of many bracing for cuts. The board might wish for more financial freedom, but board member Elizabeth Andrews acknowledges that some parents support stricter spending controls, because they view state controls as one step toward the fair distribution of resources. South DeKalb parents have long complained that wealthier schools in the northern part of the county get more than their share of money. If the system is given more flexibility in the future, those complaints could get louder.

"The pro [of fiscal flexibility] is that it leaves more local control, but that's also the con," says Andrews, who insists that all DeKalb schools are treated fairly.

The irony is that despite high-minded promises on both sides that their solutions will help Georgia kids, upcoming federal reforms are set to trump state and local control of Georgia's schools. President Bush's No Child Left Behind Act, pushed through Congress in 2001, will unleash an increasingly arduous set of standards for every school in the nation.

Schools that fail to meet those standards could lose federal funding, as well as students. Kids in schools consistently labeled as failing could be offered a wider range of school choice and, eventually, vouchers to private schools.

Not that the federal government would provide much funding to the state to defray the costs. The state will have to find the cash to provide transportation, tutors and private school vouchers for parents who choose them.

If school systems are having such a hard time dealing with Barnes' mandates now, imagine what will happen when the federal government steps in.

a href="mailto:rochelle.renford@creativeloafing.com>rochelle.renford@creativeloafing.com.