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Issue Position: Education

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Merit pay plan another bad idea for Georgia schools

In his eighth and final year of office, Gov. Sonny Perdue has his legislative floor leaders pushing a proposal that would do away with salary scales for public school educators based on their experience level, in favor of a "merit pay" system that would be largely tied to students' scores on standardized tests.

SB 386 is under consideration in the Senate Education & Youth Committee, where it should stay because it is a terrible idea for Georgia's public schools. Student achievement is -- and should be -- the ultimate goal of our school system, connecting standardized test scores to teachers' and administrators' paychecks is not the way to reach that goal and could, in fact, have an adverse effect.

First of all, standardized testing is only one means of measuring academic success and is not necessarily the most reliable. It is an even less reliable method of evaluating the performance of teachers, because there is nothing "standard" about the classroom resources, academic programs or socioeconomic conditions that exist from one school system to another.

Government's reliance on common evaluation instruments and standardized test scores has already led to charges of educators being encouraged to specifically "teach to the test" rather than providing a broader learning experience that our students will need for success in life. Even worse, dishonesty in the reporting of test scores has already been alleged in some Georgia school systems. Bringing teacher pay into the equation would likely encourage even more cheating.

So-called merit pay is promoted by its supporters as a vehicle for increased accountability in our public schools. I am not arguing there is anything wrong with accountability. But when it comes to student achievement, there are many variables that go beyond the efforts of our teachers in the classroom. In addition to holding our educators on the front lines accountable, we must also measure the performance of parents, school board members, state legislators and, yes, our governor.

Under our Constitution, public education is the responsibility of state government. Yet over the last eight years, Gov. Perdue and the legislative majority have shirked most of that responsibility through budget cuts, higher class sizes, unfunded mandates, increased paperwork, teacher furloughs and shifting the tax burden to the local level. Why should our teachers be the only ones who are consistently told to do more with less?

In the amended budget for the remainder of fiscal year 2010, Gov. Perdue proposed slashing another $299 million from K-12 education funding. The Legislature has reduced that number to $281 million, but it stills brings the total school cuts for this year to $692 million. Educators, like other state employees, must take three more unpaid furlough days between now and June 30.

During the budget hearings, state School Superintendent Kathy Cox confirmed the fact that some 35 local school systems across the state are near the financial breaking point. Those school boards must decide whether to make payroll or keep up bond payments on school buildings. Superintendent Cox said more education cuts will have a devastating effect on many more school systems that are "teetering on the edge." She warned that some systems are already in the red. This leaves local school boards with no choice but to expand class sizes up to 40 students or increase local property taxes, or both.

We all know these are unprecedented economic times, and belt-tightening is to be expected. But when it comes to reducing the funding of public education, this governor proposed drastic Quality Basic Education (QBE) funding cuts in seven out of his eight years in office -- whether economic times were good or bad. The only year he did not was 2006, when he was running for re-election.

The eight-year assault on school funding under this administration now totals around $2.3 billion, not only hurting our students but shifting the burden to the local level where property owners are forced to make up the difference. The vast majority of school districts across the state have had to raise property taxes because of the cuts in QBE funding from the state. The governor calls these "austerity cuts," but as I have said before, there is nothing austere about merely shifting the tax burden from one level of government to another.

Gov. Perdue's misguided education policies do not stop with QBE funding cuts. He has also attempted to eliminate state funding for school nurses and bonus pay for teachers earning national certification. Meanwhile, as public school funding is slashed to the bone, the governor and the legislative majority passed a $50 million tax break for private schools and repeatedly pushed for private school vouchers.

Now, on his way out of office, Gov. Perdue is proposing a teacher pay system tied to student test scores. Is there anything more cynical than the state demanding higher test scores while pulling more state resources out of our schools year after year? How can the governor make this proposal with a straight face?


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