Monthly Archives: August 2015

Governor’s education reformers take aim at teacher pay scales

Georgia teachers have been paid for decades by a predictable salary scale, but that could change as a panel working for Gov. Nathan Deal considers an overhaul of education policy.

Teachers get automatic raises as they gain experience and earn advanced degrees, but Deal’s Education Reform Commission is talking about a new way to fund school districts that would ignore those factors.

The idea is to pay more for better student outcomes or for high-demand fields such as science or math.

Districts currently are reimbursed by the state based on where each of their teachers falls on the pay scale. Those districts with longer-serving and more highly-credentialed teachers get more money. The proposal would give every district the same amount for each teacher.

So some districts would get less, which could encourage them to abandon the pay scale.

Erin Hames said the state funding law could be rewritten so that current teachers’ pay is unaffected, but she acknowledged Thursday that most districts will soon be able to ignore such a requirement.

That’s because all but two of the state’s 180 districts are either applying to become, or have already been approved as, “flexibility” districts. This gives them the power to ignore costly state mandates such as maximum class sizes, 180-day school calendars — or teacher pay scales.

The funding proposal is far from a done deal. The commission would have to recommend it to Deal, who would then find a champion in the General Assembly to pass it into law. Deal gave the commission, which continues to study the effects of the proposed changes, a December deadline to make final recommendations.

Craig Harper, spokesman for the Professional Association of Georgia Educators, one of the state’s teacher advocacy groups, said pay is a “big issue” for teachers, but it is unclear now how the proposal would affect each teacher. Some stand to make more money, but others possibly less. He said that creates uncertainty that can hinder recruitment and retention.

Deal needs a way to pay for his reforms without forcing an increase in the amount of state money that goes towards education, and eliminating the pay scale is one way to do that.

Charles Knapp, who is leading the commission, says it must figure out how to divide money the state has for education rather than recommending a formula that mandates an increase in spending.

Proponents of a pay scale overhaul say it could inject new life and enthusiasm into the teaching ranks, encouraging excellence. Others caution that Georgia’s teacher evaluation system may not accurately portray performance.

The evaluation system is built on student test results and teacher observations. However, there have been questions about the fairness of using test results to measure teacher performance because of factors beyond their control, such as student poverty.

“It sounds exciting,” said Dick Yarbrough, a retired business executive with teachers in his family, and a member of Deal’s commission. “The question is the quality of evaluations.”

By Ty Tagami
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution


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Governor plans to pump $50 million into Georgia’s pre-k programs

Gov. Nathan Deal wants to spend $50 million next year to start reversing changes he engineered to a lottery-funded early-childhood program aimed at keeping HOPE programs from going bankrupt that also led to waves of teachers leaving pre-kindergarten classes and tarnished its national reputation.

The governor said in an interview that the specifics are still in the works but that the funding would reduce class sizes in pre-k programs and increase the salaries for teachers and assistant teachers.

“We all know the statistics indicate a good pre-k program is the best starting point we can have for children in schools,” he said. “Class size and teacher compensation are critical components for being able to have an effective and responsible pre-k program.”

The governor pushed lawmakers in 2011 to restructure pre-k and HOPE scholarship programs to keep them financially afloat as they struggled increasing demand. The pre-k school year was cut by 20 days, and the maximum size of classrooms was raised from 20 to 22 students.

A 180-day calendar has since been restored, but class sizes remain the same. And advocates have long called for smaller classrooms and higher teacher pay to improve the quality of early childhood education.

Deal plans to get the funding to increase teacher pay and cut class sizes from an enticing pot of money known as the unrestricted lottery reserve fund. The fund had roughly $350 million by the end of 2014, after growing about $60 million a year the past three years. It is separate from the $460 million in lottery reserves that, by law, cannot be touched.

A reserve retreat

The governor has resisted calls to dip into the fund in the past — he said during his 2014 re-election campaign that “it’s not wise” to take from the fund in case of an economic downturn — but he’s changed his tune ahead of a new debate over lottery-funded education programs.

“The scare we’ve seen just this past week with the stock market is a reminder that we always should err on the side of being cautious,” he said in the interview Friday. “But when we do have the money available, we need to do what we can to spend it wisely.”

The shift comes as lawmakers prepare to debate a constitutional amendment to legalize casino gambling, which supporters say would infuse a new surge of cash into Georgia’s scaled-back pre-k and HOPE scholarship programs. Deal opposes the expansion of gambling, but he said he may not veto the legislation if voters support it in a referendum.

The specifics of his plan for a $50 million pre-kindergarten infusion will be honed by an education reform commission that he appointed after his re-election. The panel’s members have already begun to debate whether to boost the pay of pre-k teachers with advanced college degrees.

Early childhood education experts welcome Deal’s decision. Steve Barnett, the director of the National Institute for Early Education Research, said the state’s national reputation as a leader in early education was “severely damaged” as days were cut, class sizes were increased and experienced teachers fled.

The program has yet to recover while early childhood education systems in states such as Alabama, North Carolina and even Mississippi held steady or moved forward, he said. But he said Deal’s proposal to add an additional $50 million would “help restore Georgia’s reputation, and, more importantly, restore quality so that children and taxpayers gain from this investment.”

The pre-k program still has trouble holding on to its teachers. The program keeps about 75 percent of its teachers, down from 83 percent in fiscal 2012, when the brunt of the cuts took effect.

Early childhood education advocates have long urged Deal to find money in the reserve fund to increase pre-k teacher pay and decrease class size to help needy families who don’t have access to quality early care.

“I am agnostic on where the funding comes from,” said Mindy Binderman, the executive director of the Georgia Early Education Alliance for Ready Students. “But using lottery reserves is the logical choice.”

Tech students

Some Democrats want Deal to tap the lottery reserve for a different purpose.

Changes to the HOPE grant program in 2011 hiked the required grade-point average for technical college students to keep the tuition award and reduce the payments. Nearly 6,000 students who lost their grants bolted from schools in the years after the change.

Lawmakers approved a new grant named after former Gov. Zell Miller two years ago to cover the full tuition of tech students who earn at least a 3.5 GPA, which is awarded to about 14,500 students. That leaves an additional 67,000 students on the HOPE grant, and many get roughly 75 percent of their tuition covered by the program.

State Rep. Stacey Evans, D-Smyrna, wants the state to cover the rest of the gap. She’s met several times with the governor and his aides about taking roughly $23 million from the unrestricted reserve fund to restore full tuition funding for the grant recipients.

The new funding would only amount to a matter of a few hundred dollars a semester for most tech school students, she said, but that could be the deciding factor for many students struggling to make ends meet.

“The difference in funding is sometimes only $400 or $500, and it’s the difference between completing a program and someone not completing it,” Evans said. “And anything we can do to drive more people into the doors of a technical college is going to result in more people in unfilled jobs.”

She pointed to strong lottery proceeds – the program’s profits for state education programs recently set a record for the fourth consecutive year – as a sign that Deal doesn’t have to choose between the two programs.

“With the lottery posting record proceeds, we can responsibly do both,” said Evans.

The governor, though, signaled in the interview that he was wary of dipping deeper into the reserve funds for the HOPE grant program. He pointed to a workforce development initiative that pays the full tuition for grant recipients pursuing high-demand fields, such as welding and movie production.

“Rather than just using our money across the board,” he said, “I think it’s more appropriate to focus on areas where they can get jobs.”

By Greg Bluestein
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution


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Metro schools have teacher vacancies

The AJC picked up on DeKalb School District’s board member’s article earlier this week.

Not sure if DeKalb’s teacher vacancy failures are related to millions spent on no bid contracts to a recruiting firm

Metro Schools Have Teacher Vacancies
By: Rose French at the AJC

Thousands of metro Atlanta students are starting the school year with substitutes instead of permanent teachers as education leaders struggle to fill vacancies brought on by a shortage of teachers.

It was a different picture a few years ago during the recession when districts were making significant cuts in teaching positions amid budget constraints. Now many school systems are scrambling to fill teaching vacancies because fewer people are going into the profession, due in part to weak salaries and increased stress associated with the job amid more rigorous achievement standards.

Fulton County, for example, had about 40-50 vacancies at the start of school five years ago. Last year at this time the district had 65 teaching vacancies; as of the start of school this week it had 105, and the shrinking teacher supply increases competition to fill those slots.

It’s a scenario thousands of school districts are grappling with across the country, and the result can be hugely disruptive to classroom learning, with students in some instances getting substitutes who are not certified or don’t have adequate experience in subjects or grades they’re teaching. The largest number of vacancies are in math, science, special education and foreign languages.

“If we are placing people in classrooms, who are either not knowledgeable in their subject area and/or not prepared pedagogically to listen to and interact with kids, we’re going to do harm,” said Barbara Stengel, associate chairwoman for teacher education at Vanderbilt University.

“Everybody in their right mind knows what happens when you bring in substitute teachers. There’s chaos and it’s not just for the kids in that classroom for that period. It’s chaos that ripples through a team. It disrupts the day for everybody.”

Metro school district officials say the vast majority of their teaching and support personnel positions are filled by the start of school, but do acknowledge having the substitutes is not ideal. The five largest metro districts say they’re working to fill all the vacancies but don’t know exactly when that might happen.

“Right now we’re 98 percent staffed,” said Tekshia Ward-Smith, chief human resources officer for DeKalb schools. “While not ideal, it is certainly the best option to ensure our children receive the instruction they deserve.”

Ward-Smith says DeKalb has a roster of 550 certified retired substitute teachers. In addition to those, it also has about 500 substitutes who are non-certified, she said.

To address the teacher shortage, DeKalb education leaders say they plan to beef up recruitment efforts, forming close partnerships with teaching colleges that prepare future teachers. The district, which recently gave teachers up to a 4 percent salary increase, wants to also give teachers another pay boost in the next year or two to stay competitive with other metro districts, Ward-Smith said.

Other metro Atlanta school systems also gave teachers pay raises up to 8 percent or more beginning this fall, the biggest jump in years for many educators following furloughs, stagnant pay and increasing class sizes.

“Everybody is certainly out there trying to recruit the top talent, and we want to be right in the market,” Ward-Smith said.

“As we work diligently to fill vacancies, we have trained substitute personnel in the classrooms, and for long-term substitute assignments we require a college degree and often look to retired teachers for those assignments,” said Fulton schools spokeswoman Susan Hale in an emailed statement.

Like other districts, Fulton is giving teachers raises starting this fall. The district is also trying to recruit new and experienced teachers by using hiring bonuses and incentives to teach at harder-to-staff schools. Additionally, the student population continues to grow, which means the district needs more teachers each year, Hale said.

In Cobb, district leaders had planned to hire 100 new teachers for this coming fall as part of an effort to decrease class sizes, which had risen amid budget cuts and furloughs.

When asked for statewide teacher vacancy figures, Georgia education department officials said they do not track the information, which is left to individual districts to compile.

Fewer people are becoming teachers in Georgia and many other states, with large urban districts seeing the most vacancies.

With state funding and local property tax revenue on the rise in Georgia, school systems are choosing to put the extra money toward teachers’ and other employees’ pay. The raises are welcome news after nearly a decade of cuts from the state, though education leaders say the pay bumps are still not enough considering the pressure teachers face with increased accountability standards tied to standardized tests and responsibilities in the classroom.

“There’s been a systematic disrespecting of teachers over the last 10 years, since the implementation of No Child Left Behind,” Stengel said. “As we’ve focused more on test scores … teachers feel like they’re being told what to do rather than exerting professional judgment.”


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