Trampling reform

Published 8:07 pm Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Not many folks in these parts remember or even care much anymore, but 10 years ago education reform was a top priority on the national and state agendas.

Talk of even more drastic reform is back in the national headlines, even if it hasn’t surfaced yet in Georgia. Turning out better-educated citizens is seen in the national arena as a way to protect the United States from long-term decline.

Former IBM CEO Louis Gerstner Jr. has written an essay in The Wall Street Journal outlining what he believes must be done to improve American education. Involved in school reform efforts for 40 years, Gerstner proposes:

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• Reducing the number of school districts nationally to just 70, one for each state and one for each of the 20 largest cities.

• Instituting national tests for third-, sixth-, ninth- and 12th-graders. Publish the results for all schools.

• Establishing national standards for teacher certification, increasing compensation and allowing schools to remove underperforming teachers.

Gerstner would also … Wait a minute! Hold the phone! We have heard all this stuff before. Gerstner is wasting his time and WSJ newsprint. None of these grand dreams will ever materialize—not nationally and certainly not in Gov. Sonny Perdue’s New (and dumber) Georgia.

Remember Roy E. Barnes, an old buddy of Gerstner’s? Barnes became our governor briefly and tried out a number of Gerstner’s ideas. Look what happened to Barnes. He was zapped in the 2002 election in favor of Sonny Perdue, who ran on a platform of undoing what Barnes had done. Perdue succeeded admirably. Even if Barnes tries a rumored comeback as governor, don’t look for him to touch the third rail of education reform.

Teacher unions and apparently most teachers want no part of real reform. They vote en masse against anybody who goes there. Youngsters in the classroom don’t count. The educators are the ones who matter most, and unlike pesky elementary to high school students, teachers cast ballots.

Among Gov. Perdue’s first acts upon entering office in 2003 was to restore teacher tenure, which makes it all but impossible to fire incompetent educators.

Helping Perdue restore teacher tenure was Senate leader Eric Johnson, R-Savannah, who now opposes teacher tenure in favor of school vouchers. In other words, don’t fire the nitwit teacher; just get a slip to move the student to another school where that particular nitwit doesn’t teach.

Meanwhile, Gov. Perdue and GOP legislative leaders have chopped education by more than $3 billion since taking over the Gold Dome. Their most significant shortcoming: Failure to create a student information system to track the progress (if any) of school systems and individual students.

Even without a reliable reporting system, Perdue and his state schools superintendent have announced miraculous, overnight improvements in high school graduation rates. However, the raw data to support this miracle are not available. The major news media have reprinted Perdue’s numbers without question. “If the governor says it, then it must be true” is the new Nixonian attitude of the capital press gang.

Outside education experts contend the true statistics on graduation numbers would be—well, let’s say it politely—cooked medium well, if they were produced in Chef Perdue’s kitchen.

Georgia still ranks at or near the bottom in student achievement, a sad fact supported by the state’s performance on the SAT and ACT.

As we head into another cash-strapped legislative session, keep these facts in mind:

Republicans have no one to blame but themselves for the state’s generally poor schools. They have been in direct charge of public education for 16 years—first with imprisoned Linda Schrenko as superintendent and now with recently bankrupt Kathy Cox at the helm.

Gov. Perdue, Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle and Sen. Johnson have led the way, even in economic boom times, to slashing funds and reducing education quality.

That trend may continue. Two of the GOP’s leading candidates for governor do not have college degrees. Since World War II, Georgia has had only one governor—Lester Maddox—without a college education.

Nothing hurts a state’s economic development initiative as much as gaining and holding a national reputation for lousy schools. Georgia is the enduring recipient of a bad-schools report card, and the state’s present leaders don’t seem to care.