State School Superintendent John Barge knows what teachers can do, given the opportunity. "A teacher turned my life around," he said in a recent telephone conversation. Monty Fountain, a teacher and a coach at Alexander High School in Douglas County became a father-figure and set him on his career path.
"Given the impact that Coach Fountain had on me, I knew education was what I wanted to do," he said. "Education was for me and can be for others a way out of poverty.
With an education, you can do better with your life." The superintendent has even established a Monty Fountain Award given four times a year to a teacher who has had a tremendous impact on the lives of others. You can go to the DOE website for details.
I had called Dr. Barge initially to see if he could answer a simple question no one else seems willing or able to answer: Who is in charge of public education in Georgia? Is it the federal government? State government? Local school boards?
He laughed. I don't think it was the first time he had heard the question. "I don't have enough time to tell you everybody who has a part of public education. Just at the Federal level, we not only deal with the Education Department but a number of other federal agencies that provide funding - about $800 million - along with stringent guidelines."
The state also, of course, has its own oar in the public education waters. Gov. Nathan Deal said - correctly - in his recent State of the State speech, "I view education as our No. 1 economic development tool and there is no more forward-looking or strategic place to invest." The governor has even proposed a modest increase for education, although it won't make up for past cuts or provide raises for all teachers.
The Legislature hasn't been a good place for public education to be in recent years. The buzz term around the Gold Dome is "school choice," which I prefer to call by its proper name: "Cannibalizing public education." Its main advocate is State Sen. Majority Leader Chip Rogers (R-Woodstock.) Rogers tried to get his pet project, private school vouchers, through the session last year and failed. I am told he may try to sneak the measure in at the end of this session, assuming no one will be paying attention. (I will be.)
The straight-talking superintendent has told Sen. Rogers he is opposed to vouchers until and unless the same accountability is placed on private schools as on public schools. "If you won't hold private schools accountable to the same extent as public schools," he says, "then give public schools the same leeway private schools have." I like this man.
Dr. Barge and I disagree on private school scholarships. He believes we should be able to donate our money as we choose. I will accept his point if someone can assure me parents aren't gaming the system by putting their kids in public schools long enough to qualify them for the scholarships.
Dr. Barge says the state is close to getting federal approval to replace the infamous (my words) Annual Yearly Progress program, which is another of the predictable screw-ups that emanate regularly from Washington. The superintendent says the College-Career Ready Performance Index will be a better measure of student achievement and teacher performance. I don't have time to go into the details here but it will be a subject of future columns, I promise.
The superintendent has asked for this year to be a "hold harmless year" to get the program up and running. It would be a sin of biblical proportions if legislators continued to push pet personal projects during this time that could impact that program. Maybe they could take this time to improve teacher morale. It is in the dumper in case they haven't noticed.
Dr. Barge says he intends to turn the State Department of Education into a service agency and is working hard to improve relationships with the Legislature. Most of all, he says, "I want to give teachers the tools, flexibility and authority to teach with a minimum of interference."
With four public school teachers in my family, I will be watching to see if he can make that happen amid meddling inside and outside public education. John Barge certainly knows the impact teachers can have in changing lives for the better. Monty Fountain changed his life. That is what teachers can do - given the opportunity.
You can reach Dick Yarbrough at email@example.com or P.O. Box 725373, Atlanta, Georgia 31139.