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Gwinnett Tech hosts education policy forum

LAWRENCEVILLE - Local school board and state legislative candidates had a chance Wednesday to learn more about education policies in the first of 11 forums across the state.

The event featured veteran Georgia educators discussing key issues in education, including the achievement gap, early childhood education, curriculum standards, teacher quality, funding and finance.

The half-day forum was held at Gwinnett Technical College on Wednesday afternoon. It was sponsored by the Georgia Partnership for Excellence in Education and the Georgia School Boards Association.

Holding the event continued the tradition of offering education briefings to candidates during election years, said Bill Maddox, communications director for the Georgia Partnership for Excellence in

Education.

"We did it two years ago and it was a great success," Maddox said. "We try to give candidates a really good background. And it's nonpartisan - that's why people like it."

Topics of discussion mirrored the concerns of both educators and legislators. Stephen Dolinger, president of the Georgia Partnership for Excellence in Education, kicked off the presentations with an analysis of the economic impact of education. The former superintendent of Fulton County Schools talked about how increasing the number of high school and college graduates could have a significant effect on Georgia's economy.

"If we could raise our high school graduation rate just to the national average, $44 million annually would come back into our communities," Dolinger said.

Presenters also discussed the importance of closing the achievement gap between rich and poor students of all races. They identified proven solutions as being high quality teachers, early childhood education and strengthening math and science programs.

One important education reform is instructional extension, which allows low-performing students to receive additional time in the classroom, said Tom Upchurch, who chairs the Georgia's Closing the Achievement Gap Commission and a subcommittee of the Governor's Education Reform Study Commission.

"We know that all children go to school six hours a day, 180 days a year," Upchurch said. "But it takes some kids longer than others to learn those concepts."

Presenters also discussed the differing priorities of school board members, legislators, principals and teachers. Tony Arasi, director of professional development for the Georgia School Boards Association, talked about how policies that may sound good to policymakers may raise serious problems for schools.

In his presentation, Arasi criticized state mandates reducing class sizes. Though they seem like a good move in concept, he said, they present practical problems, including difficulty hiring new teachers and accommodating student enrollment increases.

"If you are a legislator, what you may not see is what comes with that," Arasi said. "I think that's one of the areas in which many people want more local control."

Superintendent J. Alvin Wilbanks and the Gwinnett Board of Education have also been vocal critics of class size reductions and other recent state mandates.

Following the presentations, there was a workshop for local school board candidates. It outlined the roles and responsibilities of board members in relation to the superintendent and school districts.

There will be five identical policy forums held next week at different locations across the state. They will be offered at Columbus Technical College, Albany Technical College, Valdosta Technical College, Altamaha Technical College and Ogeechee Technical College. Five additional sessions will be held the last week of June.

For more information, visit www.gpee.org or www.gsba.com.