Perdue's bill aims to funnel more money into classrooms

ATLANTA - Responding to criticism of his education record, Gov. Sonny Perdue will propose legislation on Monday requiring school districts in Georgia to steer at least 65 percent of their funding to classrooms.

The governor's floor leaders will introduce the bill on opening day of the 2006 legislative session, along with a constitutional amendment limiting the use of Georgia Lottery revenues to HOPE scholarships and the state's pre-kindergarten program.

"Education takes place in the classroom between a teacher and a student,'' Perdue told reporters last week during a briefing on his plans for the session. "That's where we're going to place our focus.''

The two measures come as Perdue prepares to seek a second term as Georgia's first Republican governor since Reconstruction.

Throughout the last three years, he has come under fire from Democrats and education groups for cutting Georgia's K-12 and university system budgets.

Perdue also has been criticized for rolling back class-size reductions enacted by the Legislature six years ago during the administration of former Gov. Roy Barnes, keeping a tight lid on raises for teachers and seeking to limit the HOPE Scholarship program.

In each case, the governor has argued that he was forced to impose fiscal discipline on education spending because of the effects of a sluggish economy on state tax collections.

But Perdue's economic advisers are forecasting that the state will take in $1.2 billion in new revenues during fiscal 2007, which starts on July 1, the second year in a row of strong growth.

The governor said the budget he will release on Wednesday will dedicate 72 percent of that money to education.

"Education is going to be a big winner in this budget,'' he said. "(But) I don't want to back fill any administration. I want it to go to the classroom.''

Perdue said the 65-percent funding goal for classrooms contained in his bill is realistic, given that Georgia school systems on average already spend 63 percent of their money in the classes.

He said systems that aren't at the 65-percent level won't be found in violation of the standard if they show 2-percent improvement each year.

Systems already sending more than 65 percent of their funds to classrooms will receive waivers, he said.

Tim Callahan, president of the 65,000-member Professional Association of Georgia Educators, said maximizing the education dollars being sent directly into the state's classrooms sounds like a laudable goal.

But he said other vital components that go into operating public schools can't be ignored.

"I also want to have guidance counselors in the schools,'' he said. "Do we need school nurses, bus drivers and custodians? Yes, we do.''

Callahan also criticized the measure as an overly simplistic concept that would simply follow an approach growing in popularity among Republicans and conservative groups in other states.

"It's kind of a bumper-sticker gimmicky thing,'' he said. "I don't call it serious policy making or visionary leadership.''

While the 65-percent standard for classroom spending is new from Perdue, the governor first proposed protecting HOPE scholarships through a constitutional amendment during a speech last June.

In fact, his last three budgets already have put a stop to using lottery money on anything other than HOPE and pre-kindergarten, a practice that diverted more than $1.8 billion from the two programs between 1994 and 2003. He said the constitutional amendment would simply give the policy the effect of law.

While Democrats aren't likely to oppose protecting HOPE scholarships, they bristle at giving Perdue credit for taking the lead on the issue.

House Minority Leader DuBose Porter, D-Dublin, noted that it was the governor who pushed unsuccessfully to link HOPE eligibility to SAT scores and Republican lawmakers who sought to limit the number of hours covered by the scholarships.

"Suddenly, at the last hour, he's become the champion of HOPE,'' Porter said. "People aren't going to fall for that.''