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Educators, legislators talk vouchers, start dates
Al Williams Office 1
Rep. Al Williams
Education is the civil rights of the 21st century and the last monopoly of government, said Sen. Eric Johnson, R-Savannah, in defense of his push for school choice vouchers during the Dec. 19 county-level legislative session.
The Board of Education invited Johnson, Sen. Tommie Williams, R-Lyons, and state reps. Al Williams and Ron Stephens to listen to local concerns and hopefully drive issues during next month’s session in Atlanta.


School superintendent Dr. Judy Scherer argued for more local control, suggesting vouchers take money from the local systems.
“Studies show that there’s more money for public education when they allow vouchers,” said Johnson, who supports giving local systems control of the quality basic education formula that determines how much they get from the state.
But Johnson said 90 to 95 percent of students, including his own children, go to public school.
“It is about them that the vouchers are trying to help,” Johnson said.
He said competition improves test scores better than anything else.
Rep. Williams thought state rankings in public education would be a major talking point in the coming decade.
“People are completely fed up with saying ‘Thank God for South Carolina, Mississippi’ … no matter how we scope it, they’re tired of the low 40,’” Williams said. “I’m trying to find ways to make sure we come out of that lower 40.”
Scherer admitted no one likes to be last in a race, but someone has to hold the spot.
“What I want is for everyone in this county to get faster … what I want is for our reading level, our math level to continue to grow,” Scherer said. “I’m not so concerned that we stay at the 50th percentile … if we are in fact making progress.”
Rep. Williams thought, in general, they are communicating a strong resistance to any compromise.
“It is becoming increasingly difficult for us supporting your position on vouchers, etc., to be able to hold the line … simply because your argument is not being accepted in the general community,” Williams said.
Sen. Williams said local control has proven to have no control.
“When a school fails (AYP) for nine years and we say to the kids, ‘We’re going to give them one more year’ … that’s not good enough,” Sen. Williams added. “If you can’t get it together in five years…those kids at least ought to have another public school choice.”

School start date

In addition to vouchers for school choice, Scherer, along with BoE chair Lily Baker, opposed a uniform school start date. They wanted to see the local systems have more flexibility in making decisions.
“There’s not a one-size-fits-all for counties in the state of Georgia,” Scherer said. “The needs are different.”
Stephens introduced a bill in 2005 mandating a uniform start date for all Georgia public schools.
“The incentive to have school start early is to have more time in the classroom before the standardized tests go out,” Stephens said.
 Scherer said she’s worried there would not be enough instructional time before the winter break if school systems do not start in early August.
Scherer also said a later start date could be inconvenient for high school students under the post-secondary option or in dual enrollment classes if end-of-course testing isn’t complete by winter break.
“It’s also not structurally very sound   …  when they haven’t been in the classroom,” Scherer said.
Baker agreed.
“When these children go home for two weeks at Christmas, they pretty much shut down on you,” Baker said. “… You’re almost starting from scratch.”
Rep. Williams supported Stephens on the legislation for a later uniform school start.
He said a longer summer break will mean less expended energy from air conditioning and more tourism dollars pumped into the state’s economy by vacationing families.
“When vacations stop that quick, dollars leave Georgia … We cut off a good tourism dollar,” Williams said.
“It just can’t be what’s convenient for parents and what’s convenient for the businesses in town,” Scherer countered.
Stephens said he was for local control, but finds other students are given more time to study and more opportunities to score well on the standardized tests.
However, according to Baker, there are important underlying issues when looking at test scores, such as mandates for including special-needs testers.
Unlike LCSS, she said some districts also regulate which students take the SAT.
 “So there are things that we all have to consider – what’s really on the table when you look at test scores,” Baker said. “Look at the full picture.”
“You should not be placed at a competitive disadvantage because you chose to start late in August … when you’ve got others who push their school calendar as much as middle July,” Stephens said. “That is a fundamental flaw in the system and we need to fix that.”
Scherer also wanted to see more incentives to recruit teachers for high-needs areas, such as special education, math and science.
She suggested using HOPE scholarship funds to put the potential teachers through school in exchange for years in the classroom.
“Right now, with the severe shortage of teachers … that’s about the only way to address this teaching issue,” Scherer said.
But Johnson said HOPE is not a bottomless pit and is still in danger.
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