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Education reform has long been a topic of political debate in Georgia. In most public opinion surveys, Georgians rank improving public education as a primary concern for governmental action. Issues of reform are complicated by competing agendas in the Georgia General Assembly and by differences in the goals advanced by teachers, politicians, and parents.
For most of the state's history, education has been a local function, with local school boards making decisions regarding the funding and operations of schools at the city or county level. Over time the state has assumed more responsibility. Georgia's first major statewide education initiative came in 1916, when the General Assembly enacted legislation that made school attendance compulsory for all children between the ages of eight and fourteen. In 1937 a state Board of Education, to be composed of laypersons rather than professional educators, was established to oversee and coordinate the delivery of education. (The previous board consisted of professional school leaders and ex-officio members.) In the 1950s and 1960s, the issue of education and education policy revolved around attempts to resist federally mandated integration. By the 1970s integration was a fait accompli, and K-12 education now took the largest share of the state's budgetary outlay. Leaders began to contemplate the many problems associated with education and took a keener interest in improving the state's schools. Nonetheless, actual operating policy remained largely the domain of local governments.
Major educational reform legislation came to Georgia in 1985 with the enactment of Governor Joe Frank Harris's Quality Basic Education Act (QBE). The issue that compelled the passage of QBE was the inequality in funding among school systems in the state. The state has traditionally funded a portion of local school system budgets, and the remaining support came from local taxes. Before QBE, school systems received state allocations on the basis of the number of students enrolled, without any adjustment for the fiscal condition of the school system or its ability to raise revenues on its own. Rural systems could not generate as much local funding as suburban districts could. By the early 1980s urban school systems with shrinking tax bases were also having difficulty keeping funding at already established levels, and legislators from both urban and rural counties called for funding equalization. Suburban legislators wanted more accountability for state funds and higher standards for teachers, but they opposed proposals that would redirect the state money their districts currently received.
QBE, which was introduced in the state senate by Roy Barnes, increased the total amount of money appropriated for K-12 education. Under the "local fair share" provision, additional state funds were given to school districts that increased local funding. QBE also introduced the "student full-time equivalent" standard in funding. This complicated mechanism allocated state funding to local school districts not on the basis of the total number of pupils enrolled in the system but depending on how many hours students were in class during a school day. The state acquired the power to compel poorly funded systems to spend more money on programs found deficient.
Further, the act established minimum salary levels for educators and merit pay incentives for outstanding teachers. A special task force in the Georgia Department of Education was charged with evaluating the distribution of funds and ensuring that all public school systems complied with QBE guidelines.
QBE also raised the professional standards for teacher certification and funded continuing-education opportunities for teachers already in the field. The act allowed the state school board to set pupil-to-teacher ratios, offer incentives to local school districts for Head Start and full-day kindergarten programs, and establish graduation competencies in math, science, language, social science, and health. QBE also mandated that Georgia history be taught in the eighth grade.
Finally, QBE established the Quality Core Curriculum (QCC), which set guidelines for the specific material to be taught at each grade level. The QCC remained in place for nearly two decades.
In his 1990 gubernatorial campaign, Zell Miller promised to institute a state lottery, with the proceeds going directly to fund new educational programs. His plan was adopted by the General Assembly and approved by the voters in a constitutional amendment referendum, and in 1993 the lottery was launched. The enabling legislation is very specific about what programs can be funded by proceeds from the lottery. These include offering college scholarships to students who maintain a B average (HOPE Scholarship s), extending Head Start and prekindergarten programs, and developing physical and technological infrastructures in both K-12 and postsecondary institutions throughout the state. These initiatives have made Georgia a leader among states in educational innovations, and the HOPE Scholarship was proposed as the inspiration for a similar federal program. The positive experience of the Georgia lottery and the popularity of the programs that derive funds from it have influenced other southern states to pursue lottery-funded educational programs.
The A Plus Education Reform Act of 2000 was crafted by Governor Roy Barnes on the basis of a report issued by a special task force in his first year in office. It provides for an independent office of accountability charged with developing testing standards for all K-12 students and coordinating the distribution of information on test results by issuing report cards on schools and school systems. The age for compulsory school attendance was lowered from eight to six. Children in grades one through three were targeted for early intervention programs, and smaller class sizes were mandated in the primary grades. All schools in the state are required to have advisory councils of parents, administrators, and community members.
Teachers were directly affected: salary enhancements are guaranteed to teachers who complete national certification, and certification is revoked for teachers who receive unsatisfactory ratings for any two years in a five-year span. In perhaps the most controversial aspect of the act, tenure for public school teachers was eliminated.
In 2002 an audit of the QCC conducted by Phi Delta Kappa International found that the curriculum did not meet national standards and could not be completed in twelve years. As a result, state teachers and other education experts developed a new curriculum, the Georgia Performance Standards (GPS), which was implemented in stages beginning in 2005. GPS increases the depth of coverage across content areas and provides instructors with suggested tasks, samples of student work, and commentary by other teachers. GPS also focuses on the skills that students must develop in order to complete the curriculum and defines the expectations for acceptable assessment, instruction, and student work.
Teachers receive training in the year prior to implementation, as well as during the first year of implementation. The first subject areas to transition from QCC to GPS were English, math, science, and social studies.