Georgia House Votes on Two Key Education Bills

Lisa Kuebler
Tucker Patch

As the Georgia Legislature wraps up its 2011 session this week, several key bills are being voted on. Senate Bill 184 and Senate Bill 79 both passed in the House of Representatives Monday afternoon. The passing of SB 184 pretty much "takes House Bill 22 off the table," as well, according to Representative Scott Holcomb.

The first education bill up for debate and vote was SB 184, which provides for change in procedures regarding termination of teachers when a "reduction in force" is necessary (i.e., when a school has too many teachers in relation to students and needs to either lay off or transfer teachers to another school). Previously, some counties in the state looked strictly at length of service when making such decisions, that is, "last hired, first fired." The new bill, which passed 141-29 in the House, requires that performance be the primary factor in decision-making in regards to staffing reductions.

Dissenting arguments questioned whether this bill leads to "teaching to the test" and whether it takes away local control of school systems. Proponents of the bill countered that all facets of performance, not just student test scores, would be considered. Local districts and school boards would still have control over policies, provided that length of service was not the only factor.

Representative Holcomb, who represents district 82 (encompassing much of the Tucker, Northlake, Embry Hills, Briarcliff and Pleasantdale areas) addressed the floor, saying he agreed with the goals of the bill, but asked for clarification on the process. "What, in addition to student test scores, determines teacher performance?" he asked.

I spoke with Representative Holcomb at length after the meeting adjourned, and he explained more about why he struggled over his vote on this bill (he ultimately voted yes). He described SB 184 as "a tough one," saying that he wants to make sure that the process of determining "performance" is fair. "How do you evaluate the most effective teacher?" he asked.

Over the last few weeks, Rep. Holcomb did much research on the bill before deciding how to cast his vote. He met with Governor Deal's education staff member who walked him and others through the "Race to the Top" program. SB 184's standard is required in order for counties (including DeKalb) to receive Race to the Top funding.

In addition, he researched how teachers felt about SB 184, and they appeared to be neutral. Had teachers spoken out strongly in favor of or against the bill, Rep. Holcomb says he would have listened and responded.

Finally, during the voting process, two members of the House Education Committee (one Democrat and one Republican) approached him. They were also concerned, but they reassured him that a procedure would be put in place to make sure that teacher performance grades as they pertain to staffing reductions would be determined in a fair way. "I'm going to watch SB 184's implementation very closely," Rep. Holcomb said, "because if we're going to watch performance, it needs to be objective, not subjective."

The next bill up for debate was SB 79. This multi-part bill had three key componenets: it determined a minimum four-year term for school board members (affecting Chatham County (Savannah) directly), it limited school boards to seven members (affecting DeKalb County directly), and school boards threatened with losing accreditation can be suspended by the governor (with pay) and replaced with new board members appointed by the governor (affecting Atlanta Public Schools directly).

Dissenters argued that appointing school board members takes representation away from the voters. Several representatives from the DeKalb County and Atlanta Public School Systems argued that the whole assembly shouldn't be voting on something that only affects a few counties, and therefore should remain a local issue. Many who opposed argued that they did so "not because of the merits of such a bill, but because of the process."

House members in support of the bill argued that "accreditation matters" (Representative Jan Jones, District 46). "It matters to colleges that students are graduating from high schools that are accredited...that have standards," she said.

Representative Kathy Ashe (District 56) asked that "school board members not be allowed to get away with preventing students from attending an accredited school... There needs to be a safety net," she said.

Representative Rashad Taylor (District 55) argued against the bill for three reasons, he said, one being the process. Another reason was "so that my constituents aren't disenfranchised by having an all-appointed board choose our next superintendent [speaking of Atlanta Public Schools]," and finally, he quoted the head of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS) as saying that "SB 79 is counterproductive and reactionary."

After several hours of discussion and debate, the bill passed 109-62. Tucker's representative Scott Holcomb voted against it, and he explained why.

He supported House Bill 22, which covered similar issues, while also addressing many of the criticisms against SB 79. HB 22 would have allowed for public debate and referendum, giving voters the chance to decide on five, seven, or nine school board members for DeKalb County. He voted against SB 79 because it created a state law where he believes there should have been a local bill, and he also said that DeKalb legislators were largely left out of the process. In addition, the bill allows the government to remove all school board members, and while those members were on probation, they would still receive pay while the newly appointed members did, as well. This, he feels, is not fiscally responsible.

While Representative Holcomb "agreed with the spirit of the bill," he did not vote for it. "No one in the legislature should be seen as defending incompetence or ineffectiveness," he said. "The methods of dealing with that were the issues with the nay voters."

The House adjourned without taking up legislation that would reduce the income tax rate from 6 percent to 4.6 percent. The issue could be revived during a special session this summer.

Representative Holcomb will host a Town Hall Meeting later this month (April 25 at 7 p.m. at Lakeside High School) where he plans to talk more about the legislative session.

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