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Improving education is priority for legislators this year
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The Georgia General Assembly will have its hands full when it convenes Monday for the 2016 legislative session.

Medical marijuana cultivation and the fight over a religious liberty bill will carry over from 2015. So, too, will calls for education reform.

Sen. Butch Miller, R-Gainesville, who is a floor leader for Gov. Nathan Deal, said education is the most significant issue on lawmakers’ plates this year.

Several big initiatives need to be addressed, and Miller said he hopes it will be done in a “comprehensive manner.”

The focus on education comes at a time when states and local governments are recouping control of classrooms following the passage of the federal Every Student Succeeds Act in December, which replaces the No Child Left Behind Act.

Georgia voters will have a chance to approve or shoot down the proposed “opportunity school districts” at the ballot the box this November, which could prove to be the final measure of reform in 2016.

The General Assembly has signed off on the ballot referendum that, if approved, would allow the state to take over failing public schools and potentially convert them to charter schools.

The opportunity school district requires an amendment to the state constitution.

Voters OK’d a constitutional amendment in 2012 to establish the state charter schools.

“I believe we are at a crossroads and this will be an extremely important session regarding education,” Hall County Schools Superintendent Will Schofield said.

REFORM COMMISSION RECOMMENDATIONS

Georgia serves more than 1.7 million public school students.

But while funding for K-12 education has increased 21 percent since 2011, the payoff in student performance has not been equal to that investment, according to the state education reform commission launched this year.

The commission recommends permanently adding $258 million to the current K-12 state budget beginning in the 2018 fiscal year budget,

“It’s crucial that the General Assembly examines and acts on this report,” Rep. Tim Barr, R-Lawrenceville, said.

Schofield, who served on the commission, said he supports such recommendations as required assessments for the youngest learners on literacy and numerical fluency.

“We certainly must fix the funding formula and fix it soon,” he added. “We need a modern student-based funding formula that can keep up with the changes in the classroom.”

SCHOOL FUNDING

The commission has also recommended adding $209 million toward a modern, student-based funding formula for classrooms.

“Georgia has failed to meet the school funding requirements of its Quality Basic Education law since 2003,” said Liz Flowers, executive director of the Georgia Senate Democratic Caucus. This has burdened local governments with additional costs, she added.

For example, funding from the state is slowly being restored after years of dramatic cuts, though Gainesville schools continue to feel the pinch compared with nearly a decade ago.

The school system has lost about $32 million in cumulative state funding since the 2007 fiscal year ended, including an estimated $2.2 million reduction for 2016 based on the latest funding formula, even while student population grew by about 1,700 during that same timeframe.

State funding cuts had reached over $4 million annually between 2011 and 2014 compared with levels before the economic recession hit.

The commission also recommends the funding formula include a weight for economically disadvantaged students, which goes beyond the initial parameters of the QBE funding model.

Flowers said her party is pushing for the creation of a state block grant program to enable schools to partner with community, business, faith-based, and other groups to implement wraparound services such as after-school programs, job training, nutrition programs and community engagement activities to better serve the needs of high poverty students and their communities.

MERIT PAY FOR TEACHERS

Rep. Lee Hawkins, R-Gainesville, said some education reform proposals will be well-received, such as increased funding for early childhood education, but merit pay will be “controversial.”

Deal has thrown his support behind providing merit pay for teachers who perform best.

For educators, the approach is welcome even if the particulars remain debatable.

“I support any legislative initiatives that support, reward and celebrate the craft of effective teaching,” Schofield said. “We have to continue to find tangible ways to encourage our current teachers and expand the pool of college-age individuals interested in entering the profession.”

But many GOP lawmakers are leery of tying pay to student test scores.

“Raises based on performance sounds reasonable and is the norm in many professions, but applying that to the teaching profession is tenuous, at best,” Hawkins said.

Miller said he’s concerned that some proposed standards might actually be counterproductive.

“We also need to let teachers be teachers,” he added.

Rep. Emory Dunahoo, R-Gainesville, said he would not support “merit pay disguised as a method to reduce base pay for teachers with merit pay making up the difference.”

LANIER TECHNICAL COLLEGE

“Career and technical education is becoming increasingly important as an avenue to prepare students for a career and well-paying job,” Sen. John Wilkinson, R-Toccoa, said.

In October, top state officials signed off on a $6.4 million land deal to relocate Lanier Technical College within Hall County.

Moving the campus to a 85.5-acre property off Ga. 365 at Howard Road will not be cheap, despite the state’s focus on improving education at and access to career-training colleges.

“The opportunity to have a new and redesigned and expanded building is a great asset,” Gov. Nathan Deal told The Times this fall. “It is an acknowledgement that as we bring businesses in, and as we have domestic businesses grow, most of their growth does require those types of technical skills.”

But just how much funding will lawmakers approve to build out the new campus?

Deal has said he will recommend funding to build the new campus in his budget this January, though no dollar estimate was given

“I look for legislation that would dramatically expand the pathways to graduation” and careers within the state, Schofield. “In coordination with our technical college system, Georgia has an opportunity to create powerful new pathways to high demand jobs within the state.”

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