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GOP education agenda takes back seat this year

POSTED: April 25, 2011 12:02 a.m.

ATLANTA — The list of education bills came straight from the GOP playbook: vouchers, charter schools, teacher performance, parental empowerment. But each one failed this year, even with a near super-majority for the Republican party under the Gold Dome.

Political observers say the bills were victims of an ongoing power struggle in the state Senate leadership and a state legislature shy about passing any measures that could be perceived as costing cash-strapped school districts more money. And they were overshadowed by a scramble of state lawmakers looking to cut back spending by the lottery-funded HOPE scholarship program and prekindergarten programs.

"The arrangement in the Senate was not conducive to passing legislation: the uncertainty of who was in power, the uncertainty from the House on who to deal with," said Charles Bullock, a political scientist at the University of Georgia. "With the leaders of the Senate spending time trying to bolster their positions, they're going to have less time to devote to legislation."

Georgia's legislative session lasts two years, which means any bills that didn't pass this year can be revived when lawmakers return in January.

One bill would have expanded the state's limited school voucher program to include active military families and students in foster care. The program already allows special-needs students to use taxpayer dollars to attend private schools.

Critics argue such a measure only takes money away from public schools, but Senate Majority Leader Chip Rogers, the sponsor, said public schools already lose per-student funding when their enrollment drops. He said the voucher program simply empowers parents to make choices for their children.

The state's ongoing budget woes made many lawmakers hesitant to pass legislation that could take more money away from districts, said House Education Committee Chairman Brooks Coleman. The school voucher bill, which also didn't pass last year, hasn't gained the traction it needs among many voters, Coleman said.

"With the budget like it is, people felt it was not time to look at that because so much needed to be done with education," Coleman said.

Another bill would have given parents the power to vote to close a low-performing school, parroting a controversial California law known as the "parent trigger act." The bill got little traction and never made it out of the Senate Education Committee despite having Rogers' backing.

Another measure would have allowed children in charter schools to take part in extracurricular activities at traditional public schools. Lawmakers attached high school sophomore's name to the bill and brought her to the Capitol to testify in favor of it.

But school districts and educators said the bill would put an unfair burden on schools' athletic teams and clubs for students who chose to go to a charter school rather than enroll in a school with extracurricular activities.

All three bills were either introduced by Rogers or had his and other Republican leaders' backing.

At the same time, House leaders were working to push through Gov. Nathan Deal's plan to cut the HOPE program after nearly two decades of giving tuition money to any Georgia student who graduated high school with a B average. The plan gained overwhelming approval in the House, even from some Democrats, but passed strictly along party lines in the Senate.

"You've got only so much time you can devote to any large policy area," said Bullock. "A lot effort for education got sucked into dealing with HOPE. It was something of a vortex."

But supporters of the HOPE plan say it was necessary to preserve the popular scholarship aid amid falling lottery revenues, which funds the program. The bill signed by Deal now will have HOPE cover 90 percent of current tuition for students with a 3.0 GPA and all tuition only for students with a 3.7 GPA and 1,200 SAT score.

"We did it from a conservative perspective, which we thought would be in the best interest of the program long-term," said Rep. Doug Collins, R-Gainesville, one of Deal's floor leaders in the House, after the plan was passed.

Most local school officials agreed.

"I call this vintage Nathan Deal. It's a very pragmatic solution to an incredibly challenging situation," said Hall County Schools Superintendent Will Schofield.

"Personally I think the legislature and the governor did a really good job looking at everything and making decisions," said Russell Vandiver, president of Lanier Technical College in Oakwood. "And those weren't easy decisions. They had a number they had to come up with to save the HOPE program."

Deal also began looking ahead to future education reform by creating an Education Advisory Board. The panel includes superintendents, principals, teachers and school board members from across the state brainstorming on ideas to improve schools.

"I look forward to meeting with them on a quarterly basis to discuss how we can continue to improve educational outcomes for Georgia students," Deal said in forming the group, which includes three local members: White County Schools superintendent Paul Shaw, East Hall Middle School principal Kevin Bales and Forsyth County Board of Education member Ann K. Crow.

Lawmakers instead spent much of their energy battling over who is in charge of the Senate rather than trying to win votes for legislation. Rogers and other Senate leaders staged a coup and stripped power from Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle last fall, leaving the Senate with a vacuum of leadership as the men squabbled.

"From what I could see operationally on the floor, there was a ball of confusion," said Senate Minority Leader Robert Brown of Macon.

Rogers could not be reached for comment.

 



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