Perdue's education ideas get mixed reaction

By Clay Wilson

Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue is trying again to get his own education package through the state Legislature.

Two of the bills sailed through the state Senate this week, garnering the support of a local senator on the Education Committee. But the chairman of the House Education Committee, also a Southern Crescent's representatives, predicts a fight in the House.

"I don't know what they're thinking, but it's not going to fly in our committee," said Ga. House District 48 Rep. Bob Holmes, D-Atlanta.

On Monday, Perdue announced his "GeorgiaLearns.com" initiative.. The package consists of three bills that address school discipline, preschool programs and flexibility for local systems in using state funds.

Perdue said in a press release that these three issues consistently surfaced in conversations he had with students, parents and educators.

The bills also revisit issues that Perdue unsuccessfully attempted to push through the General Assembly last year. Some of their provisions alter those of Perdue predecessor Gov. Roy Barnes' "A-Plus Education Reform Act" of 2000.

According to Ga. 44th District Sen. Terrell Starr, D-Jonesboro, "Each governor has a way of putting his stamp on education."

Starr, a member of the state Senate Education Committee, called the Senate bills associated with the GeorgiaLearns package "a revision and an update" of the laws that compose "A-Plus."

Senate bills 428 and 429, dealing with school spending flexibility and discipline, passed the Senate Education Committee unanimously Thursday. Starr said he voted for both bills.

"In general, I think most everything in it makes sense, and I think we can live with it," he said.

Proponents of the flexibility bill say it will allow local school systems to target resources on schools and students that need more help.

But House Education Committee Chairman Holmes indicated he feels local systems need close state oversight. He said that, like last year, when Perdue's proposals died in the committee, the governor's office is not providing legislators enough data to support their proposals.

Holmes said that committee members had received copies of House bills 1090 and 1093, dealing with flexibility and discipline, early this week. The bills were assigned to subcommittees on Friday.

He likened the data the committee has received to the situation last year in which the Gwinnett County School System was accused of greatly underreporting discipline numbers to the state Department of Education.

"The local school systems send (state education officials) data that my 5-year-old granddaughter can look at and say, ?This is wrong,' and they send it to us," he said.

Holmes said that the committee is prepared to take charges of partisanship such as supporters of Perdue's plan leveled at it last year if it decides not to pass the bills.

"We'll take the political heat again," he said. "We're not going to compromise this year. We're going to say, "If you don't give us the data, we're going to keep going the way we are."

Jocelyn Whitfield with the Georgia Association of Educators said representatives of that education lobby have been working with the Governor's Office to hammer out versions of the bills the GAE can accept. She said, though, that some issues remain unresolved.

Specifically, she said the association objects to Perdue's plan to delay for another year local systems' compliance with the maximum class sizes dictated by the A-Plus reform. The governor's proposal would allow systems to meet a "system average" rather than individual class size maximums.

"We've had four years to phase in local class sizes and local boards are screaming that they can't do this – that the money's just not there," Whitfield said, " when the state's been funding the phase-in – it's just that local boards have spent (the money) on other things."

Whitfield said the GAE agrees with most of the proposals of the discipline bill, many of which seek to tie in students' obtaining or retaining their driver's licenses with their attendance and discipline performance.

But Holmes said he has concerns with these, too – such as the proposal that high-school dropouts under age 16 will not be allowed to get a license. Holmes said he thinks such a rule will be unfair to students who drop out to get a job.

"I can't imagine a more disruptive situation than to have a 16-year-old in school every day who doesn't want to be there," he said.

Perdue contends that such measures will help restore discipline in the classroom and allow teachers to teach.

Perdue introduced his "Bright From the Start" bills, dealing with preparing the state's children for their entrance into the state school system, to the House and Senate on Friday.