Column: Maintaining the status quo is not an option in public education

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Charles B. Knapp

Guest columnist

When Gov. Nathan Deal created the Educational Reform Commission last January, he asked the commission to develop bold proposals that would better prepare Georgia students for the 21st century.

As chairman I can state that the commission worked hard and selflessly, consulted very broadly and successfully met the governor’s challenge. The recommendations of the commission are in fact so comprehensive and bold that they have generated considerable debate.

When discussing educational reform it is important to carefully note what is at stake here. We all know that Georgia has some excellent schools and many excellent teachers, but the overall Georgia K-12 system is lagging in an international economy where we cannot afford to be anything but the best. The cost of not taking action will be that our standard of living will continue to stagnate.

Bold action is thus indeed required. The commission’s report, available electronically on the governor’s office website, provides recommendations regarding a wide range of educational issues including early childhood education, school choice, move on when ready, and teacher pay, recruitment and retention.

The recommendations in these four broad areas have generally been well-received. The commission believes that if these recommendations are implemented they will make a significant difference in the opportunities that are available to Georgia’s students.

A considerable amount of the debate thus far regarding the commission’s recommendations has centered on the teacher pay provisions of the proposed new funding formula.

The new funding formula does represent an important change in the way more than $8 million in state funds are allocated to local school districts. Currently these allocations are governed by the 30-year-old Quality Basic Education Act. QBE allocates funds to the local districts rigidly based on activities, such as type and size of classes offered, and on the training and experience of teachers.

The funding formula proposed by the commission is instead based on the characteristics of each student. For example, students in kindergarten through the third grade would be provided additional funds based on the imperative to promote early literacy. And for the first time there is a positive weight for students from low-income families, since we know that these students are more expensive to educate.

Much of the discussion about the teacher pay provisions of the new funding formula has unfortunately been significantly off target. Currently teacher pay in Georgia is generally determined by the training and experience level of each teacher. The concern seems to be that the report recommends replacing this so called T+E system with an across the board merit pay structure.

This is not what the report says.

The report actually recommends that each school district be responsible for implementing a new compensation system, based on the unique needs of the district. With regard to merit pay, the report says only that each of the new compensation models must have effectiveness as one component, but that the model can also take into account factors such as teacher experience, critical shortage areas, or other local priorities.

The report further states the new compensation models cannot require existing teachers to make less that they did the prior year and that the models must offer current teachers the choice to stay with the T+E model, unless the district has a previously executed contract to the contrary with the State Board of Education.

I hope the spirited debate regarding this recommendation on teacher pay will continue, but I further hope that the debate will be based on what the commission actually recommended.

All the recommendations of the commission are now in the hands of the governor. The governor announced in his recent State of the State address that he had decided to ask the General Assembly to hold off taking action on most of the recommendations, including the new funding formula and teacher pay, until the 2017 session to allow for a full review of the report.

I hope that this extra time will be well spent in an informed debate regarding the changes that need to be made in Georgia’s educational system. But as the Governor noted in his speech we need to adjust our educational course in important ways. The focus for state policy makers should be kept firmly on how to increase educational opportunities for our students.

In my view, if the recommendations of the Educational Reform Commission are faithfully and expeditiously implemented, they will better prepare our students for the competitive workplace of the 21st century. Maintaining the status quo is not an option. Of that, there can be no debate.

Charles B. Knapp is the President Emeritus of the University of Georgia.