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State's School Plan Ensures Every Child Is Left Behind

Ohanian Comment: Here we see the conflict and complications of local vs. state control.

Georgia is no longer looking to North Carolina's successful school reforms for inspiration. Now, we're eyeing Alabama and Mississippi. And our view of even our neighboring states is about to be from behind; children there face a brighter education future than the children of Georgia.

Reforms in Alabama and Mississippi have been seeded and allowed to grow. Here in Georgia, education reform has been pulled out by the root, leaving an empty hole filled with political rhetoric. Gov. Sonny Perdue doesn't need a 32-page education bill. His entire education package comes down to one line: All of the reforms introduced by former Gov. Roy Barnes are kaput.

This week, the Senate finally exorcised the ghost of House Bill 1187, Barnes' sweeping education reform plan that mandated smaller class sizes and stricter accountability of instruction dollars.

Controls on spending are lifted. The smaller class sizes are gone. The school councils are eviscerated and left with no substantive role. The weakest link in Georgia's education chain is middle school. So, naturally, the Senate reduced the amount of time middle schoolers have to spend on academics.

An independent accountability office is out. The responsibility now rests with the state school superintendent and the state Board of Education. Both are political entities vulnerable to special interests.

In the last week, Georgia witnessed a chilling example of how political pressure can subvert educational standards. Seeking to appease those who support the teaching of creationism or "intelligent design," state School Superintendent Kathy Cox deleted the word "evolution" from the proposed biology curriculum.

Bombarded with thousands of complaints and worldwide derision, Cox reversed that decision Thursday. Still, many people have rightfully lost all faith in the integrity of the proposed new Georgia curriculum.

After killing most of the reforms proven to help children, Perdue preserved the punitive one -- namely the requirement that third-grade students pass the state's reading exam to be promoted to fourth grade. He is sticking by that requirement even though state testing problems prevented this class from taking the reading exam last year as second-graders.

So, schools never received the information they needed to identify and work with slower students. And the children were denied a practice run on a test that will now determine their future. Testing experts agree that students deserve at least one experience with a test before any high-stakes consequences are attached.

In view of the state's failure to prepare third-graders, the General Assembly ought to approve the proposal by Rep. Bob Holmes (D-Atlanta) to delay the mass retentions until next year. (In the meantime, Georgia ought to re-examine the research on retention, which shows that children ultimately fare better when they move ahead with their class and receive tutoring. When comparing students held back with those who were advanced, the kids who moved ahead are much likelier to still be in school by ninth grade.)

Perdue argues that he's not undermining school reform, simply returning the reins to the local school districts. He maintains that given the opportunity, local school districts will do the right thing for education and Georgia schools will wake from their lethargy to become tops in the nation.

It's a lovely fairy tale, but it's at odds with history. If Perdue's correct that local control is the entire answer, then why aren't Georgia's schools among the best?

Permitted great flexibility in the past, many Georgia school districts did the convenient thing rather than the right thing. That's because local school districts face major stress to keep down costs, especially in rural counties where aging property owners resent school taxes. And in many areas, the schools still function as a job bank for the board chairman's niece and the mayor's cousin.

The third of Georgia's children who live in urban and rural pockets of poverty are the losers in this political game of "Survivor." An entire generation of students will be lost because of the politics now dominating education decisions and funding in Georgia.

— Editorial
Atlanta Journal-Constitution
2004-02-06
http://www.ajc.com/opinion/content/opinion/0204a/06school.html


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