Education Bills Get off to a Fast Start; Money an Issue with Perdue's Programs

Article excerpt

Byline: BRANDON LARRABEE, The Times-Union

ATLANTA -- From teacher pay to classroom spending to whether evolution should be taught in schools, when it comes to issues lawmakers love to tackle, nothing quite stacks up to education.

This year, the General Assembly is no different, with legislators filing about 30 bills concerning education by the end of the eighth working day of the legislative session. The state Senate has passed two bills this year, both dealing with schools.

Much of the attention so far has been on free or relatively inexpensive programs proposed by Gov. Sonny Perdue: an online "virtual high school" touted by the governor passed the Senate Thursday, and his "master teacher" certification won approval from the upper chamber Friday.

But bills dealing with school budgets and how local districts are allowed to spend their money are yet to come. And that, some lawmakers say, could be the most important education legislation of them all.

"Money is going to always come back to be the No. 1 issue," said Sen. Regina Thomas, D-Savannah.

GOV. PERDUE'S EDUCATION INITIATIVES

Perdue has avoided introducing the sprawling, catch-all education bills that have been common practice in previous sessions, said Senate Education and Youth Committee Chairman Dan Moody.

"Instead, we have split this into logical pieces in order to focus on the key ingredients," said Moody, an Alpharetta Republican responsible for guiding Perdue's agenda through the Senate.

In the Senate, Perdue has filed his agenda in three pieces of legislation dealing with everything from online courses to school spending. The ideas include:

-- A plan to expand Georgia's distance learning programs to create the virtual high school within the Department of Education, which would offer advanced courses to students across the state. Perdue said he got the idea after talking to a Clinch County student who couldn't take Advanced Placement classes, good for college credit, because his local school system couldn't afford to offer the courses.

-- The master teacher program, which would allow teachers with at least three years' experience to get a special certificate for high student achievement and improvement. Those teachers would then be eligible to coach peers in other, lower-performing schools, earning a bonus for doing so. The state would pay the teacher's district for his or her service as a coach.

-- A controversial proposal to once again allow school districts to redirect money they're given to reduce class sizes in state classrooms. The bill would loosen state mandates on the number of children in each class.

Generally, the first two proposals have won widespread approval, with both passing the Senate without an opposing vote. An amendment giving public school students the priority over private and home-schooled students in signing up for the virtual high school cleared the way for Democrats to support that initiative. …