Monthly Archives: August 2014

Governor pushes for more emphasis on computer programming in Georgia

Gov. Nathan Deal pledged a retooling of the state’s education system on Monday that would better prepare Georgia students for computer programming courses as high-paying jobs increasingly demand highly technical skills.

The governor’s policy proposal would allow students who take computer programming courses to get core credit for their high school diplomas and toward higher education applications. Most of those courses now are considered electives in Georgia high schools.

Deal, who outlined the plan in a sparkling new Georgia Tech computing center, said recruiters have heard a common refrain from firms looking to move or expand their business here: “They need more computer programmers and software developers, and they need to begin teaching students before they head to college.”

The proposal comes less than three months before voters head to the polls to decide whether Deal gets another term in office. He faces Democrat Jason Carter, an Atlanta state senator who says Deal has failed to adequately focus on education.

“It’s not a bad idea, but after years of shortchanging our schools by billions of dollars, Governor Deal will need more than small-bore election-year promises to show he’s interested in helping students,” Carter spokesman Bryan Thomas said. “This will do little to help the students in rural schools who don’t have adequate computers or Internet connections.”

A ‘carrot’ for computer courses

The governor has outlined few specifics about how he would improve education if given a second term, beyond a vow to recalculate Georgia’s decades-old school funding formula and a pledge to give top teachers a pay raise. Much of his focus has been on a program called the Complete College Georgia Initiative to boost the number of college graduates.

It’s estimated that by 2020 about 60 percent of jobs in the state will require some form of college degree or certificate beyond a high school diploma, but only about 42 percent of young Georgians currently have those credentials. Deal has pledged to increase the state’s college completion numbers and produce an additional 250,000 college graduates by 2020.

Deal said more than half of the state’s projected job growth in science, technology, engineering and math fields will require computer programming skills. In contrast, he said, less than 1 percent of all students take advanced placement computer science courses.

“While these high-paying jobs are available,” Deal said, “few Georgia students actually learn these valuable skills.”

The governor is the first to say he’s no technology savant (he often calls a certain social media platform “tweeter” and compared computer programming to a foreign language). But he points to education advisers who have helped devise the plan, including Chris Klaus, a tech entrepreneur who was tapped to serve on a state higher education commission.

Klaus, a key Georgia Tech benefactor, said the move would give students a new “carrot” to take complicated courses — and teachers an incentive to teach them.

“We are on the cutting edge of putting Georgia on the map from a technology standpoint,” said Klaus, whose name adorns the new science center where the announcement was made.

Deal’s proposal would require little money — his office said it had no estimate — and approval from the state Board of Education and the Board of Regents. The outcome is not in doubt; the governor appoints members to both those panels.

Incremental initiatives

The move comes as the governor unveils incremental initiatives targeting specific groups of students and career paths.

The governor this summer promised a more streamlined process for the estimated 1.2 million young Georgians with college credits to go back to school, and he expanded grant funding for students majoring in high-demand fields. He also trumpeted a new military academic center close to Robins Air Force Base to train and educate veterans on new skills.

Higher education officials also expect Deal to expand a program that provides grant funding for students majoring in high-demand fields to include courses in the film industry. His office recently reported that the film industry generated a $5.1 billion economic impact during the last fiscal year.

Much of the campaign rhetoric on higher education, though, has focused on changes to the HOPE scholarship that once cut HOPE awards for all but the top students. Some of the cuts were eventually restored, allowing students with lower grade-point averages to still benefit from state program.

Deal has long said those initial cuts “saved” the HOPE Scholarship, whose lottery-backed funding he feared couldn’t keep up with growing enrollment. Carter says Deal’s changes failed, and the Democrat has sponsored legislation that would restore an income cap on HOPE recipients.

The two campaigns have also clashed on how to boost funding for k-12 education.

Deal promises to redirect school funding to where it’s most needed and points to this year’s budget, which includes an increase of more than $300 million in school funding. Carter said Deal has “dismantled” the education system by not reversing austerity cuts to education dating to 2003, though he won’t say specifically how he’ll fill that gap.

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Filed under Education, Georgia Education, Nathan Deal

State school superintendent candidates split on Common Core in first debate

The candidates vying to lead Georgia’s K-12 education agency split on a set of national academic standards the state is implementing and tried to appeal to teachers Tuesday during their first debate of the general election.


Democrat Valarie Wilson and Republican Richard Woods didn’t directly address each other during the 90-minute talk in Atlanta, answering questions from a panel and some written by audience members.

Common Core, the tougher academic standards developed by the National Governors Association and adopted by Georgia lawmakers, have been delayed or halted in several states. Some Georgia Republican lawmakers pushed for the state to withdraw from using them, but agreed to a legislative review committee after backlash from business interests and educators.

Some Georgia schools began rolling out the standards several years ago, and the state has contracted a publisher to develop a new test students will take this school year in line with the requirements.

Wilson, a former chair of the Decatur School Board and former president of the Georgia School Boards Association, said she would continue implementing those. Georgia students have to complete in the state, region and internationally, she said.

“I would propose that we continue to move forward but that we work closely with districts across the state,” Wilson said.

Woods said Georgia districts need more flexibility than the standards allow. In an interview after the debate, Woods stopped short of saying Georgia should withdraw from using Common Core.

But he said the department should review and control the standards. He also said the state is too dependent on testing and suggested the timeline should be changed so students take exams earlier in the school year to guide teachers in the classroom.

“We need to take stock and make sure we’re getting what we really want our kids to learn,” said Woods, a former Irwin County teacher and administrator.

Common Core hasn’t been a strictly party-line issue in Georgia. Gov. Nathan Deal has expressed some support, and former Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue was one of the governors leading the effort to create a set of national standards.

The Georgia standards remain under review by the state Board of Education and a legislative committee.

By Kathleen Foody
The Florida Times-Union

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Filed under Georgia State School Superintendent, Richard Woods, Valarie Wilson

Teacher group says premiums would soar for some on state health plan

It turns out the era of good feeling teachers had about their new health insurance plan only lasted a few days.

Once a teacher group analyzed new insurance rates for 650,000 educators, state employees, retirees and their dependents on the State Health Benefit Plan, they found that prices will shoot up dramatically for many if they decide to switch coverage, something a lot of them have been itching to do.

“These new rates, combined with the excessively high deductibles and out-of-pocket maximums, make this insurance unaffordable for most state employees and teachers,” said John Palmer, a Cobb County middle school band director and member of Teachers Rally to Advocate for Georgia Insurance Choices, or TRAGIC, which compared the new rates over the weekend.

That’s a far cry from the praise the new plans received when they were approved by the Department of Community Health board last week.

DCH officials said many plan members would see their rates decrease or remain the same. They noted Monday that premiums will remain the same for SHBP members who keep the same coverage they now have with Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Georgia. But many teachers, retirees and state employees want to switch from the current plans because they will include high out-of-pocket costs in 2015.

“The department listened to the concerns presented by our SHBP members last year and is offering more options that provide members with a choice of vendor, plan design and associated costs for 2015,” said Lisa Marie Shekell, a spokeswoman for the DCH.

The plans continue to be a political headache for the DCH and Gov. Nathan Deal, who is running for re-election this year and has been the focus of anger from members of TRAGIC since the start of this year.

Deal and the DCH had hoped they’d at least temporarily addressed concerns of teachers, retirees and state employees by increasing the number of plan options and holding down premiums.

The plans has been a political thorn in Deal’s side since last summer, when the contract to manage the program for 2014 was awarded to Blue Cross. That prompted one of the companies that had been managing the plan, UnitedHealthcare, to sue the state, accusing the DCH of resorting to “state-sponsored bid-rigging” to steer the contract to Blue Cross.

To save money, the state limited the insurance offerings to three plans, with different deductibles and premiums, along with higher out-of-pocket costs.

Once those higher costs started kicking in, teachers, state employees and retirees revolted, forcing Deal and the DCH to add back co-payments for services, costing the state more than $100 million. The extra money, however, didn’t solve all the plan’s problems, and teachers and retirees called for more choices and better coverage. A class-action lawsuit was filed in May, claiming that thousands of plan members had been overcharged on their premiums.

When comparing the current plan with the new options approved last week, TRAGIC found that members will see premiums jump 20 percent to 180 percent if they move to some of the new plans being offered.

It also saw major price differences — based on which companies members choose — in the cost of HMO and supplemental Medicare coverage.

Ashley Cline, the wife of a Cherokee County teacher who founded TRAGIC in January, said the premiums for teachers, retirees and state employees are far higher than they are for University System of Georgia employees. University System workers are also state employees, but they are covered under a separate plan.

“The Department of Community Health needs to consider the financial constraints and hardships of the hardworking state employees, teachers and retirees of Georgia who rely on the State Health Benefits Plan to provide insurance for themselves and their families,” Cline said.

The story so far

2013 – The state Department of Community Health decides to award Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Georgia the administrative/management contract for the State Health Benefit Plan that serves 650,000 teachers, state employees, retirees and their family members. Opponents organize against the new plan, saying it strips beneficiaries of their choice in health care plans and means higher out-of-pocket costs to them.

Thursday – The state Department of Community Health’s board approves new plans and rates for 2015, increasing offerings that it said would mean minimal change in premiums for many. Kaiser Permanente and UnitedHealthcare will participate in the plan in addition to Blue Cross and Blue Shield.

Monday – A group that opposed the shift, Teachers Rally to Advocate for Georgia Insurances Choices, or TRAGIC, says its analysis of the new plan shows insurance premiums for many will skyrocket next year. Premiums could jump up to 180 percent for some if they move to new plans offered under the coverage, the group says.

To see more of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s coverage on the State Health Benefit Plan, go to MyAJC.com.

By James Salzer
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

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Delay new test, says Republican school chief candidate

The candidates vying to lead Georgia’s K-12 education agency split on a set of national academic standards the state is implementing and tried to appeal to teachers Tuesday during their first debate of the general election.

Republican Richard L. Woods wants a two-year delay of the new standardized test Georgia is moving to this school year.

Woods, a retired educator from Irwin County who is running for state school superintendent, called for the delay during a debate Tuesday against his Democratic rival, Valarie Wilson.

The debate, hosted by the Georgia Partnership for Excellence in Education, was heavy on detailed policy and featured no interaction between the candidates. Wilson, the former chairwoman of the City Schools of Decatur school board, largely stuck to the script she used to win the Democratic nomination: more state funding for school districts, staying with the national set of academic standards known as Common Core and making public education a higher priority.

Wilson, participating in the debate on her 56th birthday, did not join Woods’ call for delaying the new test.

Only Republicans have been elected to statewide office in recent years. If Woods continues that trend and wins, his policy suggestions could shake up public education in Georgia.

“We are implementing something that has not been fully field tested,” Woods said of the new test.

John Barge, the current superintendent — who defeated Woods when the two ran against each other in the Republican primary four years ago — disputed that. “That’s completely misinformed,” Barge said, adding that questions from the new test have been field tested for several years.

In addition to postponing the new standardized test, Woods said he’d be open to allowing districts to take one of two tests — one that would assess student progress in the new ‘integrated’ math that has raised hackles in some districts and another that would include standard or ‘traditional’ math.

The math part of the new test being planned is based on the ‘integrated’ model, though some districts teach traditional math.

Georgia was in a group of states developing a new test tied to Common Core. But state leaders pulled Georgia out of the group, citing the likely cost of that test. Barge said he and his staff anticipated that when he took office, and, “We’ve been working on Plan B” — the alternative test to be rolled out this year — “for years.”

Barge also threw cold water on the notion of offering two standardized tests.

CTB/McGraw Hill has a five-year, $107.8 million contract with Georgia to create the new standardized test, to be called Georgia Milestones. Offering a second test would mean paying a lot more.

“We can’t afford to offer both assessments,” Barge said … “It’s just not logical.”

Although some superintendents have concerns about the new test, which is expected to be tougher to pass, no superintendent wants his or her school board, not to mention parents, to believe the district is afraid of a more rigorous assessment.

Already, superintendents are answering questions from frustrated parents who wonder why end-of-course test scores in integrated math courses like coordinate algebra and analytic geometry are so low.

One worry is that “we can see some pretty low pass rates,” said Garrett Wilcox, superintendent of schools in Vidalia City. Those low scores will give parents and others the false impression that teachers are not performing well, Wilcox said.

“These teachers are working harder than they ever have with a more needy population” of students, Wilcox said.

That’s a point Wilson made frequently during Tuesday’s debate.

“I think the state of Georgia has some of the best teachers in this country,” Wilson said. “It’s critically important that we continue to invest in these teachers.”

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Filed under Georgia State School Superintendent, Richard Woods, Valarie Wilson

Gainesville School Superintendent – Presents Strategic Plan

  • We just want to make sure we’re communicating clearly that guns are not allowed on our school campuses.
  • English language learners from Mexico and South America are nothing new.
  • Gainesville School Board members tentatively approved a lower tax mill rate

GAINESVILLE – Gainesville School Superintendent Wanda Creel says part of her Strategic Plan presented Monday night is making sure there are no guns brought to Gainesville schools by individuals.

Creel said she wants a review of House Bill 60 and a resolution added to it that prohibits guns at school.

“When you go back and review the law and the resolution that immediately follows that, we just want to make sure we’re communicating clearly that guns are not allowed on our school campuses and individuals cannot carry weapons into our schools or onto our sports fields,” Creel said. “There was an initial law and there was a resolution that changed that law and we’re working to make sure that is posted correctly.”

Under H.B. 60, besides in bars without restrictions, guns could be brought into some government buildings that don’t have certain security measures, such as metal detectors or security guards screening visitors. Religious leaders would have the final say as to whether guns can be carried into their place of worship.

School districts would now be able, if they choose, to allow some employees to carry a firearm on school grounds under certain conditions.

Creel added that school system attorneys around the state are working to make sure that the law and its resolution is understood by everyone.

G’VILLE SCHOOLS 50 percent ‘E.L.L.’

Dr. Creel says that English language learners from Mexico and South America are nothing new. They make up 50 percent of Gainesville’s public school students according to her Strategic Plan report.

“We have students coming in from South America all the time and so it’s not necessarily quite the way it’s been portrayed,” Creel said. “That is something we do every day.”

Creel estimated only 19 refugee students have arrived from South America to attend school this year and the English Language Learner program has been in place for several years.

TAX DECREASE APPROVED

Gainesville School Board members tentatively approved a lower tax mill rate and that means a no tax increase budget for FY 2015. Chief Financial Officer Janet Allison added that it also means taxes are dropping on assessed property.

“For the average $150,000 house that’s about a $16.50 decrease,” Allison said. “For every $100,000 of assessed value it’s about an $11 decrease, so its not a lot but it is something.”

Allison said the millage rate dropped from 7.59 to 7.48 mills because of a tight budget and an improving economy that expanded the tax digest.

By Jerry Gunn
AccessNorthGa.com

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