Georgia schools probably can’t count on more cash from the Legislature this year, but they may gain more flexibility.
Flexibility is easier to offer schools than money in these economic doldrums, although superintendents often note that they can’t use it to pay teacher salaries or heating bills.
Georgia lawmakers regard “flexibility” as a lever to improve academics, passing a law four years ago that all 180 of the state’s school districts pick a flexibility plan by 2015 or declare that they are satisfied with the status quo.
In exchange for flexibility, the state will hold systems accountable for higher performances.
“What we are trying to do is drive behavior in order to improve academic performance,”said state Sen. Fran Millar, R-Dunwoody, who chairs the Senate Education and Youth Committee. “You have flexibility if you have results. If you don’t, we yank it. The point is to get people to be more results-oriented and, at the same time, let them be more creative to do the things to get the results.”
Systems in Georgia already can opt for greater flexibility by becoming a charter system or an Investing in Educational Excellence (Ie2) system.
In 2004, Gov. Sonny Perdue convened a Governor’s Education Finance Task Force to clarify how much it ought to cost to educate Georgia students to a standard of excellence. But after more than three years and 75 public meetings, the task force came up with Ie2, a contract under which districts negotiate for greater flexibility in spending if they pledge to meet a higher academic bar.
Ie2 has had limited appeal; only Gwinnett, Forsyth and Rabun are in the program. Districts have preferred charter status; there are 17 such districts. One lure may be the additional $100 per pupil the state awards charter districts. (There was an effort last year to end the $100 supplement to charter systems because of the perilous condition of funding, but it was repelled by the GOP leadership.)
But there may be new flexibility models on the horizon.
After 15 months of work, the State Education Finance Study Commission is urging the General Assembly to expand freedoms for districts that earn high marks under the Department of Education’s new grading system. (Beginning next year, the state will use a 100-point rating system to create a grade for every school in Georgia.)
“Public schools should be treated the same way we treat charter schools. We should tell them what to teach but not how to teach. We have been micromanaging schools for years,” said commission co-chair and state Rep. Brooks Coleman, R-Duluth. A former educator, Coleman also chairs the House Education Committee.
New flex plans are needed for systems that are not ready or inclined to “jump all the way across the canyon into charter systems or IE2,” said commission member and state Rep. Mike Dudgeon, R-Suwanee, at a meeting at the Gold Dome. (If you watch any of the videos of the State Education Finance Study Commission, you will be impressed with Dudgeon’s acuity. Click here to read the commission’s reports and link to the videos.)
So, Dudgeon’s subcommittee proposed a graduated three-step scale of flexibility based on a district’s scorecard.
“At level 3, this is where we turn you loose. You are on your own,” said Coleman.
High performing districts would be freed from state regulations dubbed the big four: class size, teacher pay, teacher certification and the 65 percent rule. The 65 percent rule mandates that schools spend 65 percent of their revenues in the classroom. It was adopted by the Legislature in 2006 despite national data that student performance doesn’t noticeably or consistently increase at 65 percent. And that has proven true in Georgia, where the law has produced nothing but paperwork. (“Why do you remind me of bills that I wish I never carried,” said Millar, co-chair of the Finance Commission, at one of the meetings.)
The commission tried and failed to get rid of the 65 percent rule in 2012. “I ran into the reality that this General Assembly was not in the mood to repeal the 65 percent unless it was replaced with something else,” said Dudgeon. “We know 65 percent doesn’t work but there are some outlying school districts that have excess spending in their central offices.”
To prod districts to cut that bloat, the commission is recommending that the Legislature redirect state dollars going to central administration operations to technology over the next three years, resulting in $25 million annually for technology by 2016.
To update the 28-year-old school funding formula, the commission is also recommending enhanced funding ratios for school nurses, counselors and psychologists and added dollars for media clerks.”The commission understands that school systems today have to provide functions that have changed from the formula 25 years ago, including the important role of nurses. School might be the only time a child sees a nurse,” Millar said.
Millar said the commission’s goal was simplification.”We are going to have winner and losers in a lot of things we do here. When it’s all said and done, we will have a balance.”
–from Maureen Downey, for the AJC Get Schooled blog