Charlie Harper: Education Accountability Question Remains Unanswered

Charlie Harper

Wednesday, January 11th, 2017

The sound of a banging gavel signals the beginning of the forty-day legislative session of the Georgia General Assembly Monday, but the echoes of the November election are still reverberating over the din of activity.  While much of Washington and even some factions within the state capitol are adjusting to the new realities that come with a somewhat surprising President Elect, there’s another matter from November that has unexplored tea leaves.

On the November ballot there were four amendments to the Georgia Constitution.  Three of the amendments passed overwhelmingly, the closest of which – one to reform the oversight of the state’s judges – garnered more than three out of every five votes.  The fourth, a measure to give the Governor powers to take over failing schools, lost by an equally strong margin.

The failure of the Opportunity School District amendment was significant for many reasons. Chief among them is that it represented the first significant setback for a Governor that has generally been able to accomplish his policy objectives on his terms.  

Equally of note, the campaign for the amendment represents the extremely rare occasion where the opposition was funded better than a policy initiative that was the major priority of the Governor.  While the campaign to support the initiative was generally well funded, the opposition had a seemingly open line of credit issued by D.C. based teachers’ unions.   

Roughly $5 Million was ultimately spent under the guise to “Keep Georgia Schools Local”.  The result is some 60,000 Georgia students will be kept in objectively failing schools.

Which brings us to 2017 and our search for the “new normal” in politics. 2017 is just one year removed from 2018 statewide elections.  Governor Deal is term limited and thus will not be on the ballot.  Those who will be running statewide – and those who still want to keep those options actively under exploration – will begin to posture to establish their own legislative agenda and identity.  

This may or may not begin to clash with the Governor’s agenda. The current Governor would like those in the capitol who keep a watchful eye on his office with visions of their own name on the door to kindly remember that his name shall be affixed there for two more legislative sessions. 

Fresh off of victory and sensing opportunity in any daylight between Republican leaders as the next election approaches, Georgia’s education bureaucrats will seek to stymie additional reform efforts of the Governor.  They would kindly ask that you discard any campaign materials that say “Keep Georgia Schools Local”.

You see, the recommendations by the Governor’s school reform Commission include the bold idea that money allocated for education be based on the student’s needs.  The formula would seek to fund local districts based on the demographic and educational profiles of the students they are to teach.  Salaries for teachers would actually be set by local districts, removing the current system where the state recommends and allocates money for teacher pay raises.  This arrangement allows local districts to receive additional monies, but then blame the state for not sending “enough” to actually give the raises that were both allocated and funded.  The new model would make it clear that local control also means local responsibility and accountability.

Also in the reform package is a recommendation for a merit pay component of teachers.  The thought that some teachers should be rewarded for superior performance is an anathema to a bureaucracy that operates on an “all or nothing” mentality.  They want it all, and they want their accountability for results to be nothing.

The position of the education bureaucracy is rooted in Lake Woebegone, where all teachers perform above average.  To protect this myth, Education associations have fought successfully to reduce all measures of student and teacher performance.  We have simultaneously reduced the number of tests which provide objective measurements.  We have also reduced the number of subjective reviews where administrators sit in classes and rate performance. 

As this battle takes shape, educators will remind us – quite correctly – that they have a supremely important and often difficult, thankless job.  This should be stipulated early and often.  The problem arises when questions are asked about how the “more” that is demanded as an investment in education will actually reach the students who need it most – and demonstrate improvement.

The Governor is determined to keep asking that question.  The education bureaucracy will continue to obfuscate the answer at every possible turn.  How this question is answered will affect Georgia’s public schools and the competitiveness of Georgia’s workforce for a generation.

Charlie Harper is the Executive Director of PolicyBEST, a public policy think tank focused on issues of Business & Economic Development, Education, Science & Medicine, and Transportation. He’s also the publisher of GeorgiaPol.com, a website dedicated to State & Local politics of Georgia.

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