Get Schooled

Your source to discuss and learn about education in Georgia and the nation and share opinions and news with Maureen Downey

Gov. Deal: 'Education too important to be held hostage to a status quo'

As expected, Gov. Nathan Deal gave a lot of attention to education this morning in his state of the state address. He did not detail  his proposal to use test scores in a merit or performance pay for the state's teachers, but he did take aim at the status quo and those who fear change.

Among his comments:

The next step was addressing the jobs skills gap employers continued encountering. As we looked at job openings around the state, we found that almost all of them could be filled if our citizens would attend one of our Technical Colleges and receive the necessary training. With your support over the past three years, we have identified eleven areas where a student will receive a 100 percent tuition HOPE Grant to obtain that training. These Strategic Industries Workforce Development Grants cover 140 programs, and I am recommending that we add industrial maintenance this year to that important list. I am proposing to devote $17.1 million in 2017 for all of these programs.

As our colleges and universities examine their degree programs and focus more of their resources on those that lead to employment, we will rapidly close the skills gap in our workforce. I am pleased that Georgia Southern University, for instance, is one of the only universities in the country and the only one in the Southeast to offer a degree program for precision engineering, yet another example of a high demand area.

In addition to directing more resources into post-secondary education programs that lead to employability, we have also moved our focus further down the education line.  Our Move On When Ready legislation from last year, coupled with additional funding for Dual Enrollment, has greatly accelerated the pace of many students’ educational journeys. This allows high school students to attend postsecondary institutions at no cost to them or their parents. Currently, there are approximately 22,059 students participating in this program. My FY2017 budget contains over $58.3 million dollars to cover the cost of Move On When Ready, a 654 percent increase over FY2011.

In order to further modernize our K-12 education system, I asked the State Board of Education and the University System of Georgia to allow certain high school computer science courses to count as core courses in high school and for purposes of college admission.  Both entities have agreed, and there are currently nine computer science courses that count towards a science or foreign language requirement. This will give us more early learners in a field that is and will continue to be in high demand by employers.

I appointed the Education Reform Commission last January and tasked them with examining our entire education system and reporting back to me and the General Assembly with bold recommendations as to how we could better prepare our students for the 21st century. That report has now been submitted, and I want to thank Dr. Charles Knapp who served as Chairman of the Commission as well as the other 33 members of the Commission and their support staff. Please join me in thanking them for their service.

Because of the magnitude of the recommendations contained in the report, some statutory changes will be necessary to implement them fully. Other recommendations can be achieved through the budgetary process. As an example, my proposed budget provides funds to implement a new compensation model for our Pre-K programs in order to retain lead teachers, increase assistant teacher salaries and maintain classroom quality. The Pre-K budget recommendation is in excess of $358 million, which includes $26.2 million for salary increases and an additional $7.9 million for a 3 percent merit pay increase.

As the Education Funding Subcommittee was meeting this past year, I received a letter from the four legislators on that Committee expressing their desire that the reporting deadline be extended for one additional year, that is, until August 2016.  My letter response dated June 3, 2015, extended the general reporting deadline to December 18, 2015.  It further stated that during the 2016 session of the General Assembly, I wanted this legislative body to conduct a full review of the Commission’s recommendations. That is what I ask you to do. My budget next year will include funding to implement my recommendations and those of the Education Reform Commission. This will provide ample time to vet the full report. It is important that we get this right. It is also important that in the meantime, the debate be conducted in good faith and that your recommendations be based on facts and not rhetoric. In order to assist you in your deliberations, I will be creating by Executive Order a Teacher Advisory Committee similar to the Governor’s Education Advisory Board which I have had for the past 5 years.

Since I have been governor, my wife and I have visited many schools throughout our state. We have been impressed with the progress our students are making and by the dedication of their teachers, principals and staff.  Since both of us grew up with parents who were teachers in the Georgia public school system in different parts of the state, we know that it takes a special kind of person to be a teacher. As society has changed and technology has advanced, many of the challenges our teachers face have become more difficult. As a classroom teacher herself, Sandra was particularly aware of the evolving demands placed on our teachers.

As we continue to discuss the recommendations of the Education Reform Commission, it is important for teachers and administrators to know that just because we are examining ways to more appropriately allocate taxpayer dollars and put in place different models to achieve better education results, it does not mean that you are not appreciated.  Just as a sailor should not be insulted when someone repairs a leak in his boat and replaces his oars with a motor, neither should our teachers take offense when we try to do the metaphorical equivalent for them.

I fully understand that there are many factors that impact test scores and graduation rates, and many of these are not within the control of our teachers. A good parent that is dedicated to seeing his or her child succeed in school is the best ally a teacher can have. It really doesn’t matter what the financial circumstances of those parents might be, if they insist that their children go to school every day and arrive on time, that they do their homework and that they not disrupt the classroom, they will be rewarded by the teachers who welcome the opportunity to work with students who do those things. So, parents, I know you love your children and want them to succeed in life, so please do those things and you and your family will be richly rewarded.

Over the past five years, members of this General Assembly and I have shown our appreciation for our teachers by making public education a priority, and we will do so again this year by appropriating an additional $300 million for k-12 education, which is more than is required to give teachers a three percent pay raise.

We will distribute this money to your local school system under the existing QBE formula, but it is our intention that your local school system pass the three percent pay raise along to you. If that does not happen, it will make it more difficult next year for the state to grant local systems more flexibility in the expenditure of state education dollars, as recommended by the Education Reform Commission.

We have given local school systems large increases in funding for the past three years and given them the flexibility to decide how to spend it. Based on a survey by the State Department of Education, 94 percent of school systems used those funds to reduce or eliminate furlough days. With the additional funding this year, furloughs should be a thing of the past and teachers should receive that three percent pay raise.

Now that the federal government has given states greater latitude regarding testing of students, I call on our State Department of Education and local school systems to evaluate their testing requirements. If a test is not necessary to advance and tailor instruction, it should be eliminated. I do not suggest that tests should be abolished simply because the results might be embarrassing. In fact, it is those tests that pinpoint areas in need of remediation. But tests that are duplicative and do not enhance educational achievement should be abolished.

Last year, this General Assembly did just that when it abolished the mandated graduation exam. It was decided that if students had successfully passed all of the required courses for graduation, they should not be denied a high school diploma based on one final test.  As a result of that change, thousands of students have been able to enter the workforce, the military or post-secondary education without the stigma of not having a high school diploma.

The Education Reform Commission has recommended a student based funding formula to replace QBE, which is over 30 years old. Instead of spending money based on rigid, impersonal criteria, they recommend that we move to funding based on the characteristics of each student. For the first time, poverty will be one of those characteristics to be considered. They also recommend that school systems have the flexibility to utilize the talents of their teachers in expanded ways and be able to reward them accordingly.

The Gwinnett County School System, the largest and one of the most diverse systems in the state, has taken on many of the initiatives recommended by the Education Reform Commission.  Under the leadership of Alvin Wilbanks, system superintendent and CEO, Gwinnett County is embracing innovation and is developing a teacher compensation model that rewards effectiveness, promotes flexibility and requires accountability. Superintendent Wilbanks, thank you for being a pioneer and doing what some are calling “impossible.” Your example, and that of other great superintendents, administrators and teachers throughout our State working together, will be invaluable in removing the fear associated with change.

There will be those who will resist change, preferring to defend the status quo. For after all, the status quo as embodied in QBE has been in place for the entire tenure of most teachers in our schools.

To those who are either inflexible or cynical, I would ask them to consider the words of former Prime Minister of Great Britain Tony Blair, who made the following observation, and I quote: “The scope, speed and scale of change demands that we educate students for a future vastly different from our past.”

The education of Georgia’s children is too important to be held hostage to a status quo that may feel comfortable to certain adults but is a disservice to our students. The method whereby we educate our children must be as modern and adaptive to the changes in the world as our cell phones, our computers, our televisions and our automobiles. If it is not, our children will stumble and fall when they step onto the escalator of life outside the schoolhouse door.

Last year, this General Assembly took a major step in that direction by voting to put the Opportunity School District Constitutional Amendment on the ballot this November. Currently, there are approximately 74,000 students who are required to attend chronically failing schools, that is, schools that for three consecutive years have failed to achieve a score above a D or an F on our standard evaluation system. To put that number in perspective, that is about the same number of students currently enrolled at the University of Georgia, Georgia Tech and the University of North Georgia combined. I believe that in November, the voters of our state will help us trim our sails in order to overcome this vicious wind of chronic failure.


Reader Comments ...

About the Author

Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.