A need to clarify their agencies’ roles in holding schools accountable is one of the concerns state School Superintendent Richard Woods and Governor’s Office of Student Achievement Executive Director Joy Hawkins hear as they listen to local school system leaders around Georgia.
Their two-hour listening session Tuesday morning at the First District Regional Educational Service Agency headquarters in Brooklet was the 13th of 16 such sessions, one in each RESA region. About 50 people, including superintendents of most of the 19 public school systems that First District RESA serves, filled the room. Woods reported seeing similar levels of interest and participation from local superintendents and support staff in other regions.
“Of course, school safety is one of the topics that keep coming up,” Woods said after the meeting. “They’re looking at teacher raises, teacher recruitment and retention. Dual enrollment, the QBE formula and assessment and accountability are probably some of the major topics that we consistently hear across the state.”
Quality Basic Education, or QBE, is Georgia’s decades-old formula for delivering state funding to local school systems. By many accounts, the budget year now ending was the first for which the Legislature and a governor – it was accomplished under former Gov. Nathan Deal – ever fully funded the formula.
Woods is the elected head of the Georgia Department of Education. Hawkins was appointed in February by new Gov. Brian Kemp to lead the Governor’s Office of Student Achievement, established in 2002. Over the years lawmakers have assigned both agencies roles in monitoring school and student success.
While hearing appreciation for a second year of full QBE funding, for the fiscal 2020 state-funded $3,000 raise for every teacher and for the listening sessions themselves, Hawkins said she also heard from local superintendents about “barriers” that need to be removed.
“Some of the other barriers that they’re commenting on are redundancies that have occurred between our agency and the DOE, and that’s an easy fix,” Hawkins said. “To have two masters doesn’t make any sense, so we’re working with the DOE to figure out what should be with GOSA and what DOE should take on so that school systems are not confused about who they report to and whose goals they aspire to.”
Under a law meant to provide more local control in school improvement planning, all but two of Georgia’s 180 school systems have become either Strategic Waivers School Systems or Charter School Systems. These categories get different levels of leeway from state rules on things such as the number of school days and employing certified teachers.
But while the Governor’s Office of Student Achievement has been responsible for making sure that strategic waivers systems, such as Bulloch County’s, meet their goals, charter systems, such as Candler County’s and Evans County’s, report directly to the state Department of Education.
“We’ve heard them,” Hawkins said, noting a new agreement between the agencies. “We’re moving strategic waivers over to DOE.”
CCRPI vs. Report Card
The region’s school superintendents expressed a desire for the state to be more consistent in its expectations for school performance from year to year, as well as between the agencies, observed First District RESA Executive Director Richard Smith.
“The message from our superintendents was we want to be held accountable for what we’re doing, but they’ve got two different mechanisms right now and they measure different things,” Smith said. “We’d like to see them get one single accountability measure and leave it the same for some time.”
For several years now the College and Career Ready Performance Index, or CCRPI, has been Georgia’s main measure of schools’ success, but the state changes something every year, making the index “a moving target,” Smith said. CCRPI relies mainly on test scores but includes a limited amount of other data.
Another source of mixed signals has been GOSA’s School Report Card, which assigns letter grades that do reflect all of the same things as the CCRPI, said Bulloch County Superintendent of Schools Charles Wilson.
“We’re just asking them to come up with one that they can agree upon and work together, in which we can all hold ourselves accountable but at the same time communicate positive things as well as accountable things about our school systems in Georgia,” Wilson said.
He expressed agreement with a concern that the state has “an overemphasis in high-stakes testing.” Area superintendents also urged protection for the Teacher Retirement System, which Wilson called “probably one of the last tools we have to recruit and retain effective teachers.”
These were among eight concerns that Camden County Superintendent of Schools William Hardin, Ed.D., addressed in an opening statement on behalf of area superintendents.
Tone has changed
Just having the Georgia DOE superintendent and the GOSA director tour the state together to listen marked a break from the recent past, according to both Wilson and Smith.
“You’re talking about two agencies that have been pretty much not talking to each other at all talking to each other and then coming together to listen to us,” Wilson said. “You know, that’s big. That’s huge, and we expressed appreciation for that but then also for what the governor has done to make this happen.”
Kemp promised a $5,000 teacher raise while campaigning, and Hawkins referred to the $3,000 approved by the Legislature this year as “a down payment” on that total. Woods, as well as local superintendents, lauded Kemp’s school safety initiatives, including a $30,000 grant for each school. Wilson said he also welcomes the governor’s backing for programs to address student mental health.
“The tone and the positiveness that’s coming out of both DOE and the governor’s office right now towards education is a very welcome change in the way that things have been for the last few years,” Smith said. “So we’re excited about the direction that they’re going and we’re appreciative of them coming down and hearing what our superintendents had to say.”
The Statesboro Herald did not have a reporter at the listening session, but interviewed Hawkins and Woods in person as they prepared to leave and Smith and Wilson later by phone.
Herald reporter Al Hackle may be reached at (912) 489-9458.