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Education reform now rests with the governor

Gov. Nathan Deal said he is going to push for merit pay — pay for performance — as part of the education reform he is promoting during the coming session of the General Assembly.

“We’re not going to go to a fully merit-based pay system, but I do think there is a portion of the teachers’ pay should go to how good a teacher they are,” Deal said after a policy conference December 4. “Now, getting the education community to support that is sometimes difficult.”

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has tracked the progress of the commission Deal appointed to look over and recommend changes to Georgia’s education system. Here is Ty Tagami’s story of November 20 that summarizes some of the commission’s recommendations.

Now that Gov. Nathan Deal’s Education Reform Commission has spoken, everyone with a stake in the future of schooling in Georgia will have to wait for one man to make up his mind.

Deal could ignore the whole packet of proposals, or run with some or all of the recommendations. He’s not revealing his plans just yet.

The commission, which he appointed, signed off Thursday on a broad overhaul of education that touches everything from teacher pay to the frequency of school testing and how the state divides money between 180 school districts.

Jen Talaber, the governor’s spokeswoman, gave no hint as to Deal’s plans, saying he is looking forward to reviewing the recommendations and is grateful for the work of the commission members, who have been toiling over the proposals since February. They cover five topics: school funding, teacher pay, early childhood learning, parental choice and school flexibility. Many consider the funding part to be the most consequential.

The proposed funding formula would replace a 1985 law that distributes money to schools based on a calculation of the cost of educating each child. The proposed formula, by contrast, isn’t based on a cost calculation, and some observers say that’s a problem.

“What they’ve done is taken what the current level of funding is and said, ‘That’s the cost of an education,’ ” said Joseph G. Martin, Jr., a former Atlanta school board member who helped write the 1985 funding formula and served on several subsequent committees that tried to amend it. He said it’s important to know costs so smart decisions can be made when circumstances necessitate change. “If you’re going to have a formula for spending $8.5 billion, there ought to be some logic to how that formula is constructed and the logic should be a lot more than ‘this is what we spent last year.’ ”

Jimmy Stokes, the executive director of the Georgia Association of Educational Leaders, agrees that the decision against calculating cost is a cause for concern. Since 2003, Georgia leaders have shortchanged the 1985 funding formula, and everyone knew it. But with the lack of a price tag in the proposed formula, there will be no way to criticize the state for a funding shortfall and less ability to hold state leaders’ feet to the fire.

Of course, Stokes noted, the state has shorted the formula for over a decade even with a cost-based formula. The superintendents and other school leaders that he represents are a pragmatic bunch. Their main concern at this point is the bottom line, he said, and the new proposal does add $258 million in state money and possibly another $209 million if state tax revenues support it.

“As long as nobody gets any less than what they got before, then I think people can live with it,” Stokes said. He said his group is concerned about what the governor will do with the recommendations. Deal is expected to choose what legislation, if any, to write, and to ask his floor leaders to introduce it in January at the next General Assembly.

Sen. Lindsey Tippins, R-Marietta, was a member of the commission and said the group’s work is only a starting point for Deal. “The final forms of the legislation will tell us a lot more than what the recommendations of the commission are,” he said.

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