The message was clear at the state’s Board of Education public hearing Monday: Budget cuts are not over.
"What can we say beside the fact that we have less than we did a year ago?" Larry Winter, the 9th District representative on the school board, said at the meeting held at Lanier Career Academy in Gainesville. "We must be aware that things are still soft in the economy. We’re not over this yet, and there’s a possibility of midterm adjustments again."
Winter encouraged the school systems to ask questions and share how they’re adjusting budgets for fiscal years 2011 and 2012.
"Our box is changing, and we want to think outside of it," he said. "We need to share the things we can do to keep the quality up even as the finances are going down. We still owe that to the kids."
State Superintendent Kathy Cox explained that under formula funds from the federal government, poor districts that do not generate much SPLOST funding may be able to receive money to help buy netbooks and "go completely digital."
"No district can afford textbooks anymore," she said. "It’s amazing how the market can drive change. I think parents will get on board when they see the digital content is actually better and easier to customize to the classrooms."
The transition to virtual classrooms and less time "in the seat" has been effective for alternative schools, and Cox said it "needs to be the model for every student."
"I don’t think we’ll ever get the money to go back to the class sizes we had years ago," she said.
The state also will begin allowing teachers to access data from its student information system.
"As one teacher put it to me, can you imagine being a patient with six doctors who don’t know your medical history and don’t talk to each other?" Cox said. "That’s what we do in education when we have conferences. At no cost to the districts, this plugs you into the 15th floor of the Department of Education."
Trying to improve use of virtual classrooms, expanded course options and varied class sizes, teachers and superintendents complained about the current formula for state funding, which is based on student population and demographics.
"I understand your frustration and the notion that the state is not recognizing a commitment to the districts," Cox said. "The legislators assume they can make cuts and local districts can raise the millage rate. They’ve done that the last three years and aren’t even willing to raise the price of a lottery ticket."
The way to change their minds is by voting, she said.
"They expect you to keep taxing, and that is wrong," she said.
Teachers and administrators also asked about Georgia Performance Standards and the new Common Core State Standards Initiative to be implemented nationwide.
"GPS was never intended as a high bar for students," Cox said. "It’s a minimum for all students, and the minimum before was way too low."
Under Georgia Performance Standards in high schools, there is no longer a distinction between college-bound and vocational-track students. All students must complete "dual diploma" standards, which incorporate academics and life skills.
"Pigeonholing happened when kids had to go this way or that way," she said. "Dual seal students are our highest performing students in the state, so we made it one diploma so everyone could be that. When the difference between being a doctor or radiology technician meant biology or biology lite, we were failing students miserably. Based on end-of-course-test statistics, the students are showing they can take the classes. They really, really can."
Under the Common Core initiative, states started talking about a nationwide standard for performance as customizable state testing continues to be expensive.
"We say it’s about time to stop this crazy notion there’s a big difference between what a fourth-grader learns here or in Michigan," Cox said. "Ultimately, it’ll establish a new standardized test nationwide, minimal of five years away, which will be like an SAT for third grade and up. We hope it’ll save money, too."