Governor hits the pause button on education plan

"This will provide ample time to vet the full report. It's important that we get this right."

-- Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal

It has long been expected that the 2016 Georgia General Assembly session that began this week would have as one of its top priorities Gov. Nathan Deal's ambitious, and in many eyes controversial, education reform package.

It will. But not for passage this year.

Deal announced Wednesday in his State of the State speech to a joint legislative session that while he will push for some changes, mostly in funding, in the coming fiscal year's budget, the bulk of the education overhaul proposals will be reviewed and discussed for possible passage in 2017.

Georgia's public school funding formula is still the one set out in the Quality Basic Education act passed under Gov. Joe Frank Harris 30 years ago (and never fully funded). It should not be surprising that any proposed overhaul of that formula, because it involves where education money goes, would generate spirited debate.

Deal appointed an education reform commission in last year whose recommendations, released in November, included sweeping changes in per-student allocation of funds, taking into account such factors as poverty, gifted or special education classes and other variables. It also called for changes in the emphasis and rigidity of testing standards, and more flexibility in promotion of students to the next grade level at their own pace.

The most controversial recommendations involved the issue of merit pay for teachers, including an especially touchy suggestion that student scores on standardized tests might be one measure of teacher performance.

"I think the trouble," Deal said after the speech, " is that very few people have actually read the details of the report's recommendations. So I want teachers to have a chance to do that and do so with an open mind and see that it is not something designed to punish them but is in fact designed to help them."

Among the changes Deal said he will call for in this session are a $300 million increase in the education budget for a 3 percent teacher pay raise; he also said he will assemble an advisory panel of educators to be part of the discussion.

One of the governor's most influential opponents on this issue has been House Speaker and fellow Republican David Ralston, whose specific objections were to teacher merit pay based on student performance -- a scale so unreliable and with so many variables beyond educator control as to be virtually useless.

"I think education is too important for us to have a debate that could become contentious," Ralston said. "I think the steps he's taken are designed to avoid that and I applaud him for that."

Deal's decision to frame education reform in 2016 as discussion rather than legislation is the better part of valor. It should also make for better policy.