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Perdue pitches teacher raises, smaller classes

COLLEGE PARK - A 4 percent raise for teachers and smaller class sizes highlighted the education agenda Gov. Sonny Perdue unveiled on Tuesday, the second day of this year's General Assembly session.

Perdue's proposals, outlined during a breakfast speech to a business audience, represent a major departure for a Republican governor who has held the line on raises and balked at reducing class sizes during his first three years in office.

But he said an improving economy has put enough tax revenue in the state's coffers to allow him to be more generous.

Perdue is promising to set aside 72 percent of about $1.2 billion in anticipated new revenue for education.

"It's in keeping with where the budget is,'' he said after headlining the annual Eggs and Issues breakfast sponsored by the Georgia Chamber of Commerce. "It's a whole lot easier to do a budget with money.''

Perdue has been pitching his education agenda in pieces during the past several days, in anticipation of his State of the State address today to a joint session of the House and Senate.

He announced late last week that he would propose legislation requiring local school systems to spend at least 65 percent of their money in the classrooms and back a constitutional amendment prohibiting state lottery proceeds from being used for anything other than the HOPE Scholarship and pre-kindergarten programs.

Besides teacher raises and class size reductions in grades kindergarten through eight, the governor also pledged Tuesday to include funds in next year's budget to build more schools and put a counselor in every high school whose focus would be reducing the dropout rate.

"It's a very pro-education agenda,'' said Rep. Brooks Coleman, R-Duluth, chairman of the House Education Committee. "I think it's doing some things we've wanted to do but haven't been able to do.''

Lt. Gov. Mark Taylor, a Democrat seeking his party's nomination to challenge Perdue this year, said he and his colleagues will support the raises and class size reductions, as well as Perdue's promise to freeze health insurance premiums for teachers and state employees.

Taylor cited a constitutional amendment he has been pushing that would lower class sizes in grades kindergarten through third.

At the same time, Democrats accused Perdue of being an election-year convert to raising teacher pay and reducing class sizes.

Taylor criticized the governor for cutting the HOPE program unnecessarily, and House Minority Leader DuBose Porter, D-Dublin, cited three years worth of cuts in K-12 formula funding.

"Suddenly, he realizes right before election time he's on the wrong side of the issue,'' Porter said.

The 4 percent raise for teachers and state workers follows a more moderate 2 percent raise they received this year and what amounted to a 1 percent increase last year. The state didn't provide any raises during Perdue's first year in office.

"Four percent is better, but it's not good enough,'' said Merchuria Chase Williams, president of the Georgia Association of Educators. "It would take 6 percent or more to take us back to where we were before. ... We have not kept up with the cost of living.''

The governor's class size proposal would cap kindergarten classes at 18 pupils, down from 20. In grades 1-3, maximum class sizes would be reduced from 23 to 21.

The cap in grades 4-8 would be reduced by four, from 28 to 24.

"Our biggest overcrowding issue now is in the middle schools,'' said state School Superintendent Kathy Cox. "This is huge.''

The 2007 budget Perdue will recommend today also will include $383 million in bonds to build the additional classrooms that will be necessary to achieve the class-size reductions.

Another $21 million is earmarked for the "completion counselors'' the governor wants in every high school.

Coleman said Georgia's alarming dropout rate must be a key focus.

"In the '50s, when people dropped out of school, they could go to General Motors,'' he said. "Today, if they don't have a high school education, they can't get a good job.''