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Our Views: Schools are stuck in neutral
Whether its vouchers or charter systems, state should be more open to fresh ideas on education
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Gainesville school board faces pre-K dilemma

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As sure as the swallows return to Capistrano, a General Assembly session is certain to produce myriad bills designed to pull Georgia out of the nation's education basement.

New curricula. Charter schools. Expanded testing. And, this year, vouchers.

Every year, there's that "big idea" supposed to pull schools out of the muck by improving test scores, raising graduation rates and lowering dropout rates.

But just as certain is that even before new legislation is introduced, the line of people opposing it starts to form. Innovative ideas seldom get the kind of rigorous debate they deserve, and the result is that Georgia's education ranking stays near the bottom.

Over the years, we've learned a couple of lessons. First, throwing more money at education doesn't fix it. Second, neither does more regulation and government intervention in schools.

For too long, schools have been forced to fill additional roles in children's lives, including babysitter, health care and fitness monitor, food provider and a slew of other responsibilities that have clouded their vital mission to educate. Those roles need to be assumed again by parents, who must become real partners with teachers on their children's behalf.

Now the economy is struggling and the state needs to cut some $2 billion from this year's budget. Local school systems must slash spending, too.

Spending more on schools doesn't always lead to better results, but spending less surely won't help. What's needed is smarter spending, targeting education money directly toward classroom needs. Less should be spent on anything that doesn't involve kids learning.

We also need to be more open to new ideas, the proverbial "thinking outside the box." Clearly, what Georgia is doing isn't working. A healthy debate about new ideas is sorely needed.

This year's "big deal" is vouchers. Sen. Eric Johnson, a Savannah Republican and candidate for lieutenant governor, has pushed legislation for some time that would make Georgia the first state to offer vouchers to all public schools students.

Under his proposal, any student who has been in public schools for a year could apply for a $5,000 state voucher to pay private school tuition. Johnson said the state typically provides $5,000 for each public school student. Local systems pay an additional $5,000 and the federal government about $500 per child. The $5,000 voucher would come from the state's share only.

The voucher plan, if passed, wouldn't be a cure-all. For one thing, $5,000 wouldn't be enough for tuition to most private schools, which may not have enough space to handle an influx of new students (though the free market would take care of that over time).

Yet as a symbolic act, it would give parents the flexibility they now lack. Many are frustrated that their kids are unmotivated and underachieving, but they seldom have the option of moving them to a different school. Parents need some way to cope with a system they don't believe is working.

That's why the idea of charter schools is worth expanding. According to the state Department of Education, the Charter Systems Act was passed in 2007 bringing with it "the benefits of chartering to entire school systems rather than individual schools, provided such districts implement local school governance."

Last year, Merrianne Dyer, the Gainesville city schools superintendent, wrote in an op-ed piece in this newspaper, "Too often schools become stuck in being ‘good, average schools.' Meeting Adequate Yearly Progress has become a central focus for public schools during the ‘No Child Left Behind' era."

Adequate should not be the goal. Excellence should. But with so many regulations heaped on schools, from No Child Left Behind on down the line, many teachers find themselves "teaching the test," targeting only those concepts on which the school will be evaluated.

Charter schools remove that level of bureaucracy. They let parents, teachers and the community make decisions about what's best for the children. It frees up teachers to do what they should be doing: teach.

We know there is opposition to charter schools. We know there is opposition to vouchers. We know there is not a lot of money to spend on any new programs.

State School Superintendent Kathy Cox, in Gainesville last week, didn't sugarcoat the budget woes. "It's bad, folks. It really is," she said, adding that a 3 percent cut in education, at the minimum, is coming.

But a weak economy shouldn't be cause to wring our hands and say we can't do anything. Instead, it should be a call to every administrator at every level that now is the time to be innovative and look for ways to squeeze all they can out of every penny.

Take the plan by Hall County schools to shuffle students among three different buildings to maximize what's already in place. The plan calls for South Hall Middle students to relocate to C.W. Davis Middle School, and for Davis Middle students to move into the current Flowery Branch High building. Flowery Branch High students would move to the new $36.5 million campus off Spout Springs Road.

However screwy this plan may sound or the inconvenience it may cause, we have to credit superintendent Will Schofield and the county school board for not spending money they don't have. The alternative was seen last year when Gainesville's system spent itself into a huge deficit, then went back to taxpayers asking for more. As city school leaders discovered, taxpayers are tired of that game and won't take it any more.

Even in tough times, we can't let education slip from our priorities. The workplace of the future requires an educated work force, and American kids already are falling behind. As Europe, Asia and the developing world have discovered, education is the magic bullet toward improving everyone's standard of living.

Our schools need to be vibrant halls of learning staffed by skilled, motivated educators who know how to reach all students at their own levels. They need to be well-funded and fitted with the latest high-tech learning equipment. But administrators also must spend within their means to ensure that tax dollars aren't wasted.

And those making the decisions -teachers, principals or state legislators - ought to reject the same tired ideas that have failed and fully embrace new methods to improve education.

Our kids deserve it. Our community, our nation and our world require it.

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