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GAE opposes state's 'Race to the Top' application

By Johnny Jackson

jjackson@henryherald.com

Leaders of the 43,000-member Georgia Association of Educators are miffed over their exclusion from Georgia's campaign to obtain federal education funds through the "Race to the Top" competition.

GAE President Jeff Hubbard said he recently wrote a letter to U. S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan on the association's behalf, outlining reasons why the group opposes Georgia's second-round application in the competition.

"We were excited about Race to the Top, when they announced the possibilities of it," Hubbard said. "But we were told we were a part of the problem, and we, respectfully, disagree with that."

The U.S. Department of Education-guided competition is a $4.35 billion effort to help make the nation's education system more competitive. States compete for a share of the federal funds, based on their innovative ideas and plans to improve educational data systems, college-and-career readiness, and academic curricula and assessments.

School officials said both the Henry County and Clayton County school districts signed a state petition, along with 21 other school districts state-wide, to compete for the federal education funds. Should the state win Race to the Top, the districts would receive a share of the funding based on their percentage of Title I schools.

Georgia finished third among about 40 states in the initial round of Race to the Top earlier this year, just behind Tennessee and Delaware, which won federal education funds.

In a telephone interview on Friday, Hubbard disputed what he described as an inclusive planning process in putting together the Race to the Top application. He said he believes the state's delegation, which includes Gov. Sonny Perdue, did not include representatives from the state's educator associations partly because the associations were deemed to be too "invested in the status quo."

Hubbard said "neither the governor, nor representatives of his education staff ever requested the leadership of the two major professional-education association's state or local affiliates in Georgia."

GAE officials at both the local and state levels, he added, made repeated requests to participate in the application process, but were not involved "in any of the Phase I or II task force work [ to help] craft and implement the proposed reforms to bring lasting systemic change to our schools."

"School systems were not included as part of the stakeholder process, either," Hubbard said. "Only 23 of the state's 181 school systems are participating in the process."

Perdue Spokesman Bert Brantley said the state's task force included officials from the state's Department of Education, Governor's Office, and some educators, such a Gwinnett County Schools Superintendent Alvin Wilbanks.

Brantley said the state also received input from educators who responded to an online survey concerning best practices in education through assessments, data collections, and incentive programs. "We went directly to teachers, and asked for their input," Brantley said. "We've got 20,000 educators that returned the survey.

"It's unfortunate that the very teachers we are trying to help through the Race to the Top are being worked against by the organization that's supposed to look out for them," he said. "It's amazing that in these budget times, with teachers worrying about their jobs, that a group that's supposed to represent them would be opposed to this."

Representatives from three other educators' organizations in the state confirmed having little or no input in the state's application process for Race to the Top. Herb Garrett, the executive director of the Georgia School Superintendents Association (GSSA), said his association was not asked for opinions or support in the application process.

The Georgia School Boards Association (GSBA), too, has had little involvement with the application process, according to GSBA Executive Director Jeannie "Sissy" Henry. Henry said she participated in an information session, hosted by the governor's policy director, Erin Hames, in December 2009, but has had no involvement since.

"There's not been a matter of anyone asking for our input," Henry said. "We were not actively involved in the development of the plans ... [However,] we know that money is very tight in the state of Georgia, and if we have school districts that will be getting additional funds, then, we wish them well."

So said Tim Callahan, spokesman for the 78,000-member Professional Association of Georgia Educators. "We do not believe it is wise, or prudent, at this dire economic time, to spurn that amount of funding," Callahan said. "We do believe it can be better used than the application calls for, and we will be doing two things going forward. One, pointing out the shortcomings in the plan; and two, urging state officials to spend the money, if we do get it, more wisely on improving teaching and learning, rather than developing and piloting exotic [and poorly thought-out] pay-for-performance plans that the state cannot afford."