Monthly Archives: January 2014

Teachers, state workers are upset about changes in health plan

ATLANTA — In 15 days, Ashley Cline has suddenly acquired nearly 9,000 new friends because of one thing they have in common.

While none of these new Facebook friends is likely to invite her to lunch or even send her a Christmas card, they do appreciate her for bringing them all together. She founded Teachers Rally Against Georgia Insurance Charges, or TRAGIC, as a protest against the State Health Benefit Plan insurance options that took effect Jan. 1.

Cline, the wife of a Cherokee County teacher, probably won’t be getting lunch invitations or Christmas cards from Gov. Nathan Deal now either. That’s because the first request she’s made of her new friends is to flood his office with phone calls complaining about the insurance plan that covers teachers, state workers and retirees.

In an election year, that could send 650,000 votes to Deal’s opponents. That’s how many people are covered in the plan.

Her main complaint and that of her growing membership is that they no longer have the option of a health maintenance organization in favor of a type of coinsurance where the patient pays along with the insurance. In the HMO, she was able to take her 4-year-old daughter Avery to occupational therapy and only have to pay $25 per weekly visit. Now, she must pay the full $130 until she has met Avery’s yearly deductible of $1,500 before the new health reimbursement arrangement plan, or HRA, begins paying the majority of the costs.

Her monthly premiums were $420, but now they are $540. As jolting as the 29-percent premium increase was, she would have gladly accepted an even higher premium to stay in the HMO and avoid deductibles.

“Every single person I’ve talked to who had the HMO said they would have paid more,” she said.

The HMO plan was popular, with two of every five people covered by the State Health Benefit Plan were enrolled in the HMO. Its premiums have been climbing, and Cline only paid $147 per month for it in 2007.

By 2011, the HMO as well as the HRA and a high-deductible health plan, together were headed toward an $800 million deficit.

That prompted a quest for alternatives by the board of gubernatorial appointees overseeing the Department of Community Health that runs the program.

When the board voted last August to eliminate the HMO option, it did because state employees and teachers were crying out for relief from soaring premiums at a time when their pay was frozen, according to Lisa Marie Shekell, the department’s communications director.

“One of the things that we had continuously heard from our members — particularly as they had furloughs and no pay raises — and the board was figuring, how can we respond to people asking how can you contain my premium level or maintain it,” she said.

For Melissa McCoy, a 34-year-old English teacher who’s suffered from malignant hypertension since her teens, the annual cost of just one of the many drugs she has to take would satisfy her yearly maximum out-of-pocket expense.

“I understand the concept of coinsurance. But what I do not understand is how a teacher in the state of Georgia is supposed to have $1,100 to spend on a stress test/echocardiogram in February,” she wrote to the editors of the Savannah Morning News.

As for the governor, he was quoted in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution pointing the finger at the insurance administrator that lost the business to Blue Cross, United Healthcare which is suing the state over it.

“I think that’s the genesis of it, and in some cases people have been given false information,” Deal said.

His communications director, Brian Robinson, points toward the Obama administration for the coverage requirements of the Affordable Care Act.

“A lot of this is because the mandates of ACA are taking place and impacting the State Health Benefit Plan, definitely, and the governor is as concerned about it as teachers are,” he said. “If you are upset about what’s happened to your healthcare plan, it’s not the Governor’s Office where you should call. It’s the White House.”

Robinson began his response by pointing out that it was Deal’s appointees on the DCH board, not the governor himself, making the specific policy decisions.

At DCH, Shekell said the meetings, flyers and websites given to employees during last year’s open-enrollment period didn’t get through to some people.

“The silver lining of what’s come out is more people are contacting us, asking questions,” she said, allowing the department to suggest ways to economize on prescriptions or lifestyle changes.

She’s looking ahead, too.

“Certainly, we’re receiving feedback from members — just as we always have,” she said. “We’re looking at what we’ll be doing in 2015.”

And for Ashely Cline, she can’t understand why no one saw this coming.

“If a regular person can make a Facebook page and have it explode with all of these responses of people who said they’re not going to be able to go to the doctor … DCH should have anticipated some of this.”

By WALTER C. JONES
savannahnow.com

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State School Superintendent Candidates Comment on Graduation Rates

The Republican candidates in the Georgia State School Superintendent race recently faced off in a debate. Among the questions was one asking if the GED should be included in graduation rates. Frankly, I’m horrified by their answers. Nancy Jester was the only candidate who knew her stuff. Looking at the responses, she’s the only one qualified for the job. Watch the video or read the transcript and judge for yourself.

Kira Willis
Yes we should. The GED is a graduate equivalent diploma. Although the military doesn’t accept it, you know who does, technical institutes. In fact, Lanier Tech offers a GED class. So, when you pass it you can go to Lanier Tech.

So, I don’t understand that. I don’t think the GED is a walk of shame. I think it gets a child where he or she needs to be quicker and faster and they’re done. And, they leave with a high school diploma. I also believe, as a high school student, I believe in the ‘D’. Does anybody remember the ‘D’ here in Georgia? I do. We had Ds. So, you’ve got a child, if a passing is 70, and the child gets a 69.4, they fail. That doesn’t make any sense to me. We’re .6 away from passing. But grading and integrity, we need to make sure teachers keep their grades with integrity.

Matt Schultz
The graduation rate thing drives me crazy to be honest with you because it’s measured in so many different ways across the country. It’s very difficult to know how you stack up against one state to the other. The same thing with SAT scores. You hear all the time that Georgia’s in the 40s with SAT scores, but nobody bothers to talk about participation rates. Georgia has one of the highest participation rates in SATs around the country. And if you factor in our participation rate, we go from 37 to 11 in performance.

So, what I’ll tell you is that I think a lot of times we get too wrapped up on trying to have these little metrics. What I would rather us do … I’m not sure I’m comfortable with the GED. I’ll be honest with you. What I would like to make sure is that we have students graduating within one semester of their class. I think that should certainly be counted. A lot of our folks get in trouble that way.

One of the things that we have done in our community to be successful with graduation rates is “Credit Recovery”. We tried graduation coaches and different things, but working with students to do credit recovery. We had to change some of our policies and say, you know what, you don’t need to take that 5th P.E. class. We’re going to let you go pick up that math you blew off when you were a freshman, so that kid has a chance to graduate on time.

The biggest thing we have to look at kid by kid, student by student, and make sure we are putting them in the best position to be successful. And, I still think part of that is going to be making sure we identify those kids who need to graduate our high school with a technical skill. We can do more to retain students that way than any other action that we can take outside of maybe continuing to invest in online opportunities, especially credit recovery.

Fitz Johnson
To answer your questions, Yes and Yes. The GED should be a part of graduation rates. I echo those sentiments. I get so frustrated when I hear about where we are as far as graduation rates. We all want to do better on graduation rates. But, if we are consistently and constantly looking over our shoulder, and we don’t even know if we are measuring our graduation rates with Tennessee’s graduation rates with California’s graduation rates. We’re not comparing apples to apples.

What we have to do is concentrate on what we’re doing here right here in the state of Georgia, making sure that we are reaching out to those children and making sure individually they are reaching their potential and reaching the standards to support a high school diploma. At the end of the day, that’s what we’re going to do.

Nancy Jester
I’m sort of surprised by my fellow candidate answers here because we are comparing apples to apples. We now use a new federally mandated measurement for 4 Year Cohort. So, they don’t calculate it different ways in different states. It is exactly the same way we measure it. It is right now the only statistic we have where we can really compare apples to apples. So, that’s why it’s illustrative.

And, I’m not going to give you any excuses. I’m not going to wring my hands and say, “Well, I get upset when we talk about it.” I want talk about it because when we weren’t talking about it, we were telling everybody we had 80% graduation rates and we didn’t. We had 67% graduation rates. This is a problem. This is a very important statistic. It is the only one we have right now that shows us who’s getting it done and who isn’t. Because, the CRCT, that’s not nationally normed. We can’t compare. That’s an apples to bananas comparison. So, we can’t do that. This is very important and it speaks to how we have failed. We have failed to make education relevant. And, we have failed to even get kids to stay in school until they graduate. They do calculate a nationally normed 5 Year Cohort graduation rate, but we are in the same boat there. So, you can take your pick. I use the 4 Year Cohort rate, because I think we should be able to do that. I’m not an excuse maker. I will not make an excuse. I will say that over and over and I’m really surprised that folks here don’t know that that is a nationally normed apples to apples comparison. I know that and I won’t run away from that. Thank you.

Mary Kay Bacallao
I was going to say something a little bit different too. What we’re doing in the state of Georgia, it seems like it’s coming from the State Department of Education. It’s really passed through from the … all the shots are being called by the U.S. Department of Ed. So that needs to change. And, including how we calculate graduation rates. I’m not saying we should hide from anything about graduation rates. My dad taught GED for many years. GED is great. People that want to get it can just get it done. That’s a great thing.

But, we really need to look at our state. What does our state want to do? Because that graduation rate, it’s in this whole convoluted student achievement school report card that doesn’t directly measure student achievement. So, all of that … we don’t have any …. you gotta know if you’re going to start doing something, what you can and cannot do. It’s all controlled by the US DOE. That’s not the way it should be.

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Cutting Class to Make Ends Meet

Gov. Nathan Deal’s State of the State message, delivered Wednesday, hit some high notes concerning education — and it’s about time. State lawmakers have eviscerated public education funds for close to a decade. Deal, while not giving teachers a raise, something that’s mandated by the state, does have some increases for teacher training and experience. He plans to send $300 million to local districts through QBE formula, increase funding for transportation and vouchers and give $25 million in grants for digital education and wi-fi enhancements. Any dime will help — if it actually happens. The budget will be sliced and diced by a General Assembly that has shown itself to be anti-public education.

According to the Georgia Budget & Policy Institute’s study, “Cutting Class to Make Ends Meet,” Georgia’s lawmakers have cut $5 billion from the QBE formula in the last five years, and it’s “the 12th consecutive year that it has been underfunded.” Cumulatively, the state has cut school funding by almost $8 billion since 2003.

School districts have had to take drastic measures to keep afloat. Seventy-one percent of the state’s districts have cut school calendars to less than 180 days. Fourteen have cut more than 10 days from their calendars; 80 percent of districts have furloughed teachers and cut professional development funds. In Bibb County, school personnel have seven furlough days; 42 percent have reduced or eliminated art or music programs and 62 percent have cut elective courses, according to the GBPI study.

It gets worse, 85 percent of the state’s schools have increased class sizes since 2009; 83 percent have used reserve funds to operate and are now coming up empty. While school populations have increased, there are 8,982 fewer teachers than in 2009, and fewer instructional support staff. Bibb County has 119 fewer teachers, Houston 85, Baldwin 75, Dublin City 34, Laurens 47, Bleckley 37, Monroe 8 and Jones 31.

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Deal proposes large increase in school spending

Gov. Nathan Deal wants to plow more than 80 percent of new state spending next year into schools, following the strategy of predecessors who paved their way to re-election by embracing public education.

Facing challenges from two Republicans and Democratic state Sen. Jason Carter this election year, Deal on Wednesday promised to send $315 million to schools to end teacher furloughs, add school days and give raises as part of the largest education spending increase since before the Great Recession.

“These funds will provide our local school systems with the resources and flexibility to address the most critical needs of their students and teachers,” the governor said.

Raises for teachers are not automatic. Deal acknowledged that some teachers may go without pay increases, because he’s leaving it to local school districts to decide how to spend the money.

He also called for more than $400 million in school, university and technical college construction projects; millions for new programs to help Georgians complete degrees and afford technical college tuition; millions more to help improve Internet connectivity in schools; and extra money to get more people trained to be welders and health care technicians.

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With Common Core at stake, the Georgia Chamber steps in

By Jim Galloway
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Business types don’t always want to be seen consorting with office-seekers. They prefer to assess their friends and foes in private, which presumably allows plainer talk.

So the invitation from the Georgia Chamber to bear witness was a welcome surprise. And the topic itself was just as unprecedented – a first vetting of candidates for state school superintendent. Never before has the state’s premier business organization dipped into the contest. Not like this.

Then again, never before has the Chamber seen one of its major initiatives – an education push it considered both vital and uncontroversial — trashed so thoroughly by elements of Georgia’s ruling party.

The Georgia Chamber is the state’s most powerful proponent of Common Core, the multi-state initiative to set uniform, nationwide education standards in math and English for k-12 public school students.

Business is not a disinterested party: With Georgia ranking near the bottom in terms of test scores and graduation rates, employers now find it difficult to put their hands on qualified workers. Economic development suffers.

Sonny Perdue — the first Repubican in modern Georgia history — was a midwife to Common Core’s birth. Nonetheless, within the last year, the effort has been denounced by the most conservative elements of the Republican party as an effort to federalize education in the U.S.

Socialistic. Communistic. One-worldish. You name it – the adjective has been applied within tea party circles.

The Chamber put its position in writing, in a brief sent to eight invited candidates for school superintendent – one Democrat and seven Republicans. (More candidates are anticipated.)

To most of the GOP candidates, the warning didn’t matter. ”It’s centralization. Ask the Soviets how that worked out,” Nancy Jester, a former DeKalb County school board member said.

She went on to chide the business group for its poor philosophy when it came to Common Core. “Centralization is not a method that leads to success. The Chamber knows that. We know what drives success. That’s competition,” she said.

Mary Kay Bacallao, a professor of math and science education at Mercer University and a member of the Fayette County school board, has built her campaign around opposition to Common Core.

Drew Evangelista, an AT&T education learning specialist from Fulton County, declared it “fundamentally broken.” Richard Woods, a school administrator from Tifton, declared Common Core would lead us “down a path that does not promote student learning.”

Fitz Johnson of Cobb County once ran a family-owned defense contract company, and has raised more campaign cash than all of the other candidates combined – $265,000 when last reported. He finessed the question.

“Is there middle ground? I’m for rigorous standards here in the state of Georgia. And I’m for local control,” he said. But Johnson said he would implement whatever curriculum the state Board of Education approved.

Kara Willis, a Roswell Republican who ran for school superintendent in 2010 as a Libertarian, was slightly more direct. “I don’t have a problem with standards. I like them,” she said.

But the only candidate to give the Chamber a full-throated endorsement was state Rep. Alisha Thomas Morgan of Austell, the lone Democrat. “I absolutely support Common Core,” she said. “I’m proud of the product.”

There was one more candidate in the mix – Matt Shultz, a three-term Republican member of the Bartow County school board. He turned out to be the afternoon’s truth-teller.

It really didn’t matter what he thought of Common Core, Shultz said. In Republican circles, it’s now radioactive. He addressed the business leaders in a language they could understand. “If Common Core were a brand and I were a product manager, it would be dead on arrival. We have lost the marketing war on Common Core,” Shultz said. “That’s just a fact.”

Common Core will have to be pulled off the shelf, repackaged, and called something else, he implied. We suggest something with an Earl Gray lilt, for tea party palates. Call it “Sovereign Standards” – trademark applied for.

After the event, Chris Clark, president and CEO of the Georgia Chamber, all but conceded that a re-branding was in order.

“They all found a hole to shoot in Common Core, and that’s fine,” Clark said. “The bottom line is, are you going to support higher standards, or are you going to roll it back? We don’t want the candidates that are going to roll it back.”

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Filed under Alisha Morgan, Common Core, Georgia State School Superintendent, Nancy Jester

State School Superintendent Forum

Georgia School Watch staff attend the recent forum of state school superintendent candidates. Overall, the group seemed nice, but Jester was the only candidate that knows her stuff and can do the job. We heard the usual pat answers from most of the candidates about helping children and all that stuff. Most of them seemed confused about what the top job in education is all about. That became clear with a question from someone from Cherokee County.

The question asked if the candidates thought we should include the GED in graduation rates. We first heard from Kira Willis who said she agreed that we should count a GED. Then she started talking about how she liked the letter grade “D”. Not sure what that was all about.

Next, Matt Shultz told us that the graduation rate thing drives him crazy and that it’s measured different ways across the country.

Then we heard from Fitz Johnson who had mentioned in his introduction about how much money he’d loaned himself to run because he cares. He told the crowd that he thought the GED should be counted. He went on say that he gets frustrated with hearing about graduation rates because he said that different states calculate the rate differently. He said we can’t compare because it isn’t apples to apples.

After that we heard from Nancy Jester who had been bringing up graduations rates during the forum. She told the crowd that she was surprised by the other responses about grad rates. Jester said that it was an apples to apples comparison because we switched to a standard for this a few years back. She called out the others for not knowing this and being excuse makers for the poor performance. Jester went on to say that the grad rate for Georgia is lower than all our border states and we spend more money per pupil.

Georgia School Watch is pretty familiar with education policy stuff. We remember this story in the AJC when Georgia changed over to the new federally mandated measure. Here is a quote from that story:

“Under the new federally mandated formula, Georgia’s 2011 graduation rate has been reset at 67.4 percent. That’s well-below the 80 percent graduation rate that the old formula produced — an accomplishment politicians have pointed to as a bright spot in the state’s academic record and a reason for companies to do business in Georgia.”

There you have it folks. Jester is the only candidate who knew this. It was a big change for Georgia. Is this any way to pick the leader for education in our state? It is scary to think that only one candidate knows this stuff.

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Georgia Get’s a C In Education Reform Efforts

StudentsFirst Publishes Second Annual State Policy Report Card; Georgia Improves Grade For Its Education Reform Efforts

ATLANTA – Today, national education group StudentsFirst published its 2014 State Policy Report Card. Rather than rank states based on current student achievement levels, the report card evaluates whether states have the right policy environments in place to best raise academic levels from where they are today.

Due to the bipartisan efforts of Georgia legislators to pass teacher and principal evaluations last session, the state saw a grade increase on the State Policy Report Card. Georgia received an overall grade of “C-”, with a grade point average of 1.75 for its performance in three critical areas: elevating the teaching profession, empowering parents, and spending public dollars wisely.

“Georgia’s rise on the State Policy Report Card is a direct result of the hard work Governor Deal and our leaders have done to elevate the teaching profession across the state,” stated Bradford Swann, StudentsFirst Georgia State Director. “While the State Policy Report Card continues to serve as roadmap for policymakers, StudentsFirst looks forward to working with leaders on measures that increase fiscal transparency and accountability.”

According to Kirk Shook, a public school teacher in Oconee County, “I was pleased to see that Georgia is prioritizing effective teaching by ensuring that effective teachers and principals are recognized. However, we have much room for growth. Through smart, student-centered funding, Georgia can become a better steward of taxpayers’ dollars and ensure our children get the quality education they deserve.”

Focusing on enacting common-sense laws that ensure taxpayer money is spent wisely will be a top priority for StudentsFirst Georgia and its 70,000 members in 2014 and beyond. Only through student-centered funding, fiscal transparency and accountability can Georgia ensure our children get the quality education they deserve.

Charles Rutland, a public school father in Macon added, “If you are a school parent like me, and want to know what measures you should be demanding from your elected officials, this is your resource. Take it to your legislator’s office, drop it on their desk, and ask what they are going to do about improving your child’s school.”

The 2014 Georgia State Policy Report Card can be viewed, downloaded and compared to other states on the StudentsFirst report card web site here: http://reportcard.studentsfirst.org.

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