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A look at educational issues
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Editor's Note: This is the first of a two-part commentary from Jenny Thompson. The second will appear in the Sunday edition of The Covington News.

After covering the education beat for a year now, I have learned what all the acronyms - NCLB, AYP, GLISI, CRCT - stand for, I know where all the county schools are located and could probably recite the school board's policy for public participation.

Wednesday, I attended the second media symposium sponsored by the Georgia Partnership for Excellence in Education and realized I still don't know everything or even most of it. I don't think any one person can.

Even though I am certainly not as knowledgeable about education in Georgia as say the AJC's Maureen Downey, I have developed some of my own opinions about how things operate in our schools and under the Golden Dome.

Georgia PAGE again released the Top Ten Issues to Watch in 2008 at Wednesday's symposium. Last year they listed school choice as a result of schools failing to meet Adequate Yearly Progress as mandated by the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act as an issue to watch, and sure enough, three of Newton County's schools had to offer families a choice of going to another school as a result of not meeting standards.

I feel like I failed in my coverage of the issue because so many families opted out of their home school.

If one subgroup of students does not have a high enough percentage of children meeting or exceeding standards, it causes the entire school to fail AYP. In the case of our schools, the scores of students with disabilities - through no fault of teachers or administrators - caused those schools to fall into the "needs improvement category."

Most of the students who transferred from the failing schools were not in the students with disabilities subgroup.

I did my best to convey the facts clearly in the extensive coverage I gave to AYP as they applied locally, but of course, I can't reach everyone.

Schools even held informational meetings to discuss why the school did not meet standards, but some parents simply hear the word "fail" and don't bother to take the time to understand what that entails exactly.

This year the school choice Top 10 issue had to do with House Bill 881 and the creation of charter systems. The bill would allow entire districts to apply to the state to become a charter system, thus gaining more flexibility of how they spend the money they receive from the state and generate locally.

Every system is different. Newton County has different demographics and needs than a huge system like Marietta City Schools or rural Irwin County.

While most of the systems that have expressed interest in becoming charters have been small and rural, offering school choice would foster competition among schools in a district. Competition would lead to improvement in all schools, so I think all medium-sized districts should discuss applying.

Newton County Schools' central office staff recently sent a survey to parents about their interest in establishing a theme school within the district, possibly focusing on math and science.

Since these are generally trouble areas throughout Georgia, giving students a choice might give them incentive to work harder to do well in those subjects.

Another issue presented by PAGE was early childhood education. Some state lawmakers are discussing the feasibility of creating a program for 3-year-olds.

This would be a wonderful thing because research shows children who receive excellent health and educational services from the age of zero to 5, generally make higher grades and eventually work higher paying jobs than those who do not. However, this plan is ridiculous considering not all of the state's 4-year-olds are served by the pre-kindergarten program.

Newton County can only provide 480 slots for the lottery funded pre-K program. This leaves some children who desperately need care out to dry. Also, parents who can afford daycare sometimes gain a spot in the state-funded program.

Money spent per pre-K student steadily declined from 2002 to 2006 and only rose slightly in 2007 even though lottery revenues continue to increase every year. If the program cannot serve all children, it should be based on financial need.

I think all families who have 4-year-olds should be able to send them to school before the state considers a program for younger children.

Speaking of the lottery, the general assembly needs to find a way to enforce the percentage of lottery revenues that lawmakers mandated go toward pre-K and the HOPE Scholarship, actually fund those programs at that level. Lottery employees gave themselves exorbitant bonuses this year while 4-year-olds and high school seniors were robbed of a quality education.

Jenny Thompson is the education reporter for The Covington News. She can be reached at jthompson@covnews.