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Assessing the damage to education by 2012 Legislature, AJC, 3/30/12

posted Mar 31, 2012, 2:35 AM by Bill Duncan
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Assessing the damage to education by 2012 Legislature

10:17 am March 30, 2012, by Maureen Downey

Joe Martin

Joe Martin

With the General Assembly wrapping up last night in its usual frenzy, school financing expert Joseph Martin sent me this op-ed this morning.

(He sent two copies, one with footnotes and one without. I am not including the footnotes here, but Martin has provided documentation for his figures. He is ready for the AJC Truth-O-Meter.)

Martin has been a longtime voice for public education; he was president of the Atlanta Board of Education, a leader on several state commissions, head of the Georgia School Funding Association and an unsuccessful candidate for state School Superintendent. And he helped design the current Georgia funding formula, Quality Basic Education, which, of course, has never been fully funded.

He has been called upon many times to testify at the Capitol on school financing. I think it is fair to say that Martin, a Democrat, is respected by members of both parties for his expertise.

By Joseph Martin

The State of Georgia is undermining our public schools. This may seem like an exaggeration, but the facts are clear. So, what really happened during the last session of the General Assembly?

The most heated issue was a fight over who gets to authorize charter schools, but this is still a distraction from the larger story. Nothing was done to reverse the steady erosion of state support to our schools over the last decade.

The reduction in school days, the additional furlough days, the increases in class sizes, and the cuts in programs will grow worse in the upcoming school year, especially since local systems can no longer rely on rising property taxes to cover the deficits in state funding.

State allotments to local systems are 26% less on a per-student, inflation-adjusted basis than they were ten years ago. Because of an unrealistic formula with another $1.1 billion in “austerity cuts,” a typical class is losing over $30,000 a year.

Some systems have been able to make up the difference from local resources, but most can’t. Moreover, the formula to assist the least wealthy systems in Georgia was quietly cut by 41% solely because “this is all we can afford.” The students in these systems will never catch up.

The State is systematically reducing its investment in our schools under the pretense that it doesn’t have enough funds, while the wave of tax cuts and exemptions never ceases. Our legislators cut taxes again this year without ever asking how the State will meet its obligations.

We are harming our children, sapping the vitality of our economy, and relegating our state to an inferior status. Three out of every ten students in Georgia are not graduating from high school with a regular diploma. Is this the path to a prosperous future?

It is essential to have capable teachers, effective leaders, active parents, and sound policies, but they do not replace the need for adequate resources. Georgia spends considerably less per student than the national average, and the only way to make further reductions is to decrease teacher salaries and increase class sizes. Administrative costs have already been slashed in most systems.

No sensible person would ever advocate spending more without expecting results, but it’s equally foolish to pretend that our schools can perform their vital mission without paying our teachers a reasonable salary, assisting the students who need extra help, and offering a full curriculum.

The concepts of “choice” and “flexibility” are touted as easy answers to the challenges facing our schools. Of course, parents should have more choices, and our schools should be freed from unnecessary regulations. But the real question is how to serve all of our students and not just some. Charter schools can be effective, but are not a substitute for improving all of our schools.

Some are calling for vouchers that would benefit the students who are accepted by private schools and can afford the tuition not covered by the voucher. Georgia taxpayers are already allowed to “divert” their tax payments to entities that support private schools, with no accountability or disclosure about who benefits.

Our state is slipping backward, and many of our children are not getting the education they need and deserve. Changes have to be made, but the need for adequate support by the State cannot be ignored. This is not a Democratic or Republican issue, nor is it an urban or rural issue. It is crucial to the future of our state. Do we really want good schools for our children?

–From Maureen Downey, for the AJC Get Schooled blog

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