Task force calls for more choices in school funding

ATLANTA - Georgia public school systems willing to be held more accountable for their students' performance should be given more flexibility to achieve the improvements they're seeking, a state task force recommended Monday.

But after more than three years of work, the panel of educators, lawmakers and business leaders still hasn't determined what it should cost to support the new "education partnership" between the state and local schools.

"Trying to figure out what it takes has been a long, drawn-out process," said Dean Alford of Conyers, chairman of the Governor's Education Finance Task Force and a former member of the state Board of Education. "It's a big old train we've been trying to keep on track."

Gov. Sonny Perdue created the task force in 2004 to overhaul Georgia's 20-year-old public-school funding formula.

The panel's members agreed early on that the key to fulfilling their mission would be to come up with a price tag for providing every student with a quality education.

While one subcommittee continues to crunch those numbers, a second came up with the recommendation adopted on Monday.

The proposal, which is expected to be taken up by the legislature this winter, would scrap the current single formula and allow school systems to choose between five models.

They would range from the least flexible, the current formula, to the charter system model enacted by the General Assembly last year, which would give districts the most flexibility.

"This is an opportunity for the systems to be proactive, more than they are now," said Alvin Wilbanks, superintendent of Gwinnett County Public Schools and the subcommittee's chairman.

"One size does not fit all," Alford added. "This will give us a framework so 180 systems can contract uniquely with the state."

The contract model each system selects would be subject to approval by the state Department of Education.

In order to continue earning the degree of flexibility extended under the contract they choose, systems would have to demonstrate ongoing progress.

Education groups generally support the concept of giving school systems more choices in their partnerships with the state.

But there also have been complaints that three years have gone by without the task force addressing its central mission.

"I was disappointed earlier in the process over the time it was taking," Perdue said Monday. "(But) this is an area where I'd rather have a good product than necessarily a fast product."

However, time could be running out for the task force to wrap up its work because of a deadline outside of its control.

A lawsuit filed shortly after the panel was created charging the state with failing to adequately fund public education is due to go to trial later this year.

The case is being brought by a consortium of mostly rural school districts.