Ga. finalist for federal school funds

The Bibb and Jones county school systems could reap millions in education reform funding if Georgia prevails in a national competition.

Georgia was named one of 16 finalists Thursday, vying for a slice of more than $4 billion that’s up for grabs through a federal grant targeting education improvements. The “Race to the Top” competition drew 41 applicants.

The contest is designed to reward and spur states to lift student achievement through innovative programs, using part of President Obama’s economic stimulus funding.

Georgia is set to receive up to $462 million during four years if it’s chosen as a winner next month.

Georgia would use half the money to implement creative programs to improve public education, and the rest would be split among 23 participating school systems to make reform changes, said Bert Brantley, Gov. Sonny Perdue’s spokesman.

Schools systems would have to use the money in four key areas: preparing students better for college and competition in the global economy, retaining effective teachers and principals, building sound data systems to measure student achievement and turning around the lowest achieving schools.

If Georgia is chosen, the 23 school systems, in a sense, would be guinea pigs for educational changes that eventually could sweep across the country.

“It’s really exciting we made the first cut,” Brantley said. “These are the labs that will test (reform) ideas. We’d be on the front edge.”

That’s why both Bibb and Jones County school officials said they wanted to get in on the competition.

If the state is chosen, “whatever that cutting edge is, we get to be a part of it,” said Cathy Magouyrk, Bibb’s deputy superintendent of teaching and learning. “That is very powerful.”

Bibb could stand to collect up to $6.9 million in federal money, school officials said in December, although that was a rough estimate.

“First of all, we don’t know how much Bibb’s potential cut is,” Magouyrk said. “It will be used to support school improvement. And like everything we get from the feds, there will be strings attached.”

While the school board could vote to raise taxes next week to offset state budget cuts, officials said the potential revenue could not be used for day-to-day school operations, and it would not change the need for additional local resources. The money would have to be used on specific education reforms.

There are many possibilities. A charter school, an International Baccalaureate program for younger students and other innovative ideas are sorely needed in Bibb County’s public school system right now, said Julie Moore, executive director for Education First, a nonprofit in Macon that supports public education.

Bibb is about to launch a search for a new superintendent. The system’s former superintendent and two of its top administrators are under a state ethics investigation.

“We are hoping this money can be useful to move us in front of the pack,” Moore said. “We are in a critical time for Bibb County schools. I’m confident we have teachers and principals who can lead us out if they are given a voice and room to do what needs to be done. We can see some success.”

Ted Stone, chairman of the Jones County school system, said he didn’t know how much Jones is set to receive if Georgia prevails.

But he said Jones school officials recognized that being part of a pilot program could help move the system ahead of the pack and possibly draw more funding.

“Any money you can get your hands on will help,” Stone said. “So we figured we might get in on the ground floor and get some extra federal funding.”

Jones has implemented some of the reform features already, he said.

Brantley said Georgia’s application for the competition was probably chosen because the state is already moving to try innovative programs. Among those initiatives are a push to pay teachers based on how their students perform academically and using graduation coaches in schools.

Also, Georgia already was implementing a statewide student information system to track students who move to other counties, or to private schools, in order to monitor graduation rates.

Brantley said he thinks the state has a good shot at winning.

Perdue and Arne Duncan, the secretary of education, talk often, he said. And Perdue is one of just two governors on the National Assessment of Educational Progress exam board.

The winning states will be chosen next month after finalists go to Washington, D.C., for interviews with education officials.

If Georgia is not selected, Brantley said the state could apply again this summer.

The short list of states includes many that are financially stressed and have school systems that have been forced to make massive cuts to budgets and lay off employees, U.S. education officials said Thursday.

The applications were scored in several areas including prioritizing education funding; closing the achievement gap among poor, disabled and minority students and their peers; adopting uniform academic standards; openness to helping strong charter schools succeed; and improving teacher and principal quality. “Some people question how do we do reform when budgets are tight. I say we simply can’t afford to not do reform,” Duncan said during a news conference.

The Obama administration lauded the competition’s impact on spurring widespread reform.

However, education analysts questioned the selection of largely East Coast states and Southern right-to-work states, as well as states such as Kentucky where the charter school movement has been slow to take hold.

Staff writer Halimah Abdullah and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

To contact writer Julie Hubbard, call 744-4331.