This legislative session could see several big pieces of the education policy fall into place. As Sen. Dan Weber, chairman of the Senate Education Committee, puts it, constructing a coherent policy is sort of like building a wall, laying bricks one at a time.
While Weber prefers a blueprint in ink rather than the faint pencil sketch partys leaders sometimes seem to be following, there is still a discernible scheme. It can be deduced from the legislation they have passed and the bills they have proposed as well as from the statements they make.
Consider, for example, Webers comment about priorities.
I personally believe where you can get the best bang for the buck is leadership training, said the Dunwoody Republican.
He has a lot of faith in the management courses Republicans have instituted that are now being given to principals and other administrators. He wants to relax as many statewide and district-level regulations to allow principals and teachers enough flexibility to employ their new skills creatively.
If additional funding and the pain it causes taxpayers isnt the answer to public educations problems, as the GOP mantra states, then the solution depends on using existing funds more effectively. Better trained administrators with ample leeway is seen as one route to improved effectiveness at practically no additional cost.
Seemingly hand-in-glove with leadership training is the charter-school and charter-system concept that Weber and other Republicans seek to expand this legislative session. Charter institutions get exemptions from many state regulations in exchange for greater accountability.
Indeed, Gov. Sonny Perdue would extend that bargain to any public school system in the state.
His graduation coaches hired during the last two years and the parent recruiters he is proposing now both are also billed as relatively inexpensive ways to boost the efficiency of schools without expanding their mission.
Another route to improved effectiveness without significant financial investment would be through the incentive of competition, Republicans say. Most of them support the idea of tuition vouchers for private schools, and they tested the idea by passing a limited voucher plan last year available to the families of handicapped students.
The theory is that educators faced with the prospect of losing their students to a competing school will respond by stepping up their own performance.
Cheap fixes, of a sort, are central because underlying Republican thinking is the belief that a job is the best social program. That means keeping taxes as low as possible so that employers have the money to create new jobs.
Democrats tend to view education differently. They see great potential in public education but feel the potential isnt fully realized because schools are underfunded and understaffed. They oppose vouchers and Republican House Speaker Glenn Richardsons GREAT Plan sales-tax/property-tax swap out of fear they would erode schools funding stream.
Many Democratic bills would enhance teacher pay and retirement, reduce class size or expand the reach of schools, like a measure to create a pre-kindergarten for 3-year-olds, something Weber calls tremendously expensive. Typical of the GOP response to most of the Democratic education agenda.
However, there now appears to be one area of agreement. High on Democratic priorities is pumping in the $140 million into the per-pupil funding formula that Perdue left out of his budget recommendation. Several key GOP leaders said Wednesday they intend to put back what the governor left out, but if theyre like Weber, they dont see it as a panacea.
I think there are more important issues than restoring that $140 million, he said. It wont make a huge significance in most districts.
Yet, one sign suggests Republicans might loosen the purse strings a lot for education.
It came from Richardson last week when he told an audience at the Atlanta Press Club he favors a proposal he calls BRIDGE to provide greater vocational training for the 80 percent of high school students who dont wind up in college. He said hes undeterred by estimates the program could cost $1 billion since thats only a tenth of the current education figure.
So what? he said. Its worth the price to do it.
Clearly $1 billion falls in the range of tremendously expensive in anybodys book. So why high school vocational training and not 3-year-old pre-k?
The reason is because the GOP focuses on jobs as a way to help people, and the BRIDGE proposal has a more direct link to job readiness than expanding pre-school, where whatever benefits exist disappear, Weber says, by third or fourth grade.
Which of this years education proposals ultimately pass depends on the lens in which the majority views them. (Of course the BRIDGE plan could also depend on Richardsons ability to find enough money.)
Handicapping the likelihood of each bill is easier when the Republican majoritys market-oriented philosophy comes into focus.