One of my questions to presenters at an education symposium Friday was what three things the Georgia Legislature had done in the last few years that helped education and what had hurt it.
Herb Garrett of Georgia School Superintendents Association paused for a moment before responding: “The road to hell is paved with good intentions. I think there have been some good intentions. But it’s easier to talk about the damage.”
And the greatest damage to schools has come from the ongoing “austerity cuts,” a phrase introduced into education parlance by Gov. Sonny Perdue in 2003.
Cumulatively, those cuts have reduced spending in Georgia k-12 schools by $1.1 billion per year, said Garrett, a former principal and superintendent.
“There are systems barely able to keep their heads above water,” he said, speaking at the Georgia Partnership for Excellence in Education’s annual session on top school issues in the state.
State Rep. Stacey Abrams, D-Atlanta, could only come up with two positives that she and her peers achieved for education — increased flexibility for systems that win charter status and House Bill 186, which broadened career and technical offerings in high schools.
That she could not come up with a third example bothered Abrams. The problem is that Georgia has disinvested in its schools, she said. Many of her General Assembly colleagues sidestep the damaging underfunding because they don’t want to be tarred as tax-and-spend types.
But a manufacturer faced with unskilled workers and broken-down machinery only has three choices, said Abrams: Go bankrupt, accept that it will produce an inferior product for a down-scale market or seek new investments to improve its workforce and its product.
With its schools, Georgia has opted to produce a mediocre product and peddle it to dollar stores, said Abrams.
Her Republican colleague at the podium, Brooks Coleman of Gwinnett, did not disagree.
“It’s a fact that we have had deep cuts in education,” said Rep. Coleman, a former teacher. “I thought about having a bake sale or an auction. If we could just put the money back in — but it is not going to happen.”
It’s not only lawmakers at fault, said Coleman. Voters contend they want all sorts of improved government services, including better schools, but balk at paying for them.
Jadun McCarthy, Georgia Teacher of the Year, talked about the impact of cuts on the classroom.
“We are being told, ‘You need to do more with less,’” he said. “That sounds like a great philosophy. But it presupposes you weren’t doing the most that you could with what you had in the first place.”
A Bibb teacher, McCarthy said his school is in the bottom 5 percent of Georgia high schools, although he and other teachers are committed to their students’ success.
“For whatever reason, we are not reaching them; they are not learning the way they should. Is that solely the responsibility of the teacher?” he asked.
McCarthy said he has students who live in homes with no electricity and who come to class hungry because their last meal was yesterday’s school lunch.
“People think my job is to get this child to read ‘Beowulf,’ to understand Shakespeare, the bard of Avon. This child doesn’t care,” said McCarthy. “This child wants to be in a room with heat. This child wants to be safe.”
“There is no test that measures that Mr. McCarthy made a difference in this child’s life because he kept him off the street,” he said. “Our job goes beyond giving information and knowledge. Our job involves the creation and building up of a human being.”
Traveling the state as Teacher of the Year, McCarthy said, “I found out that teachers are tired. They are tired of being put down and focused on as the sole problem in an education system that is quite frankly not where it should be.”
McCarthy said the classrooms of today differ little from the classrooms of 1985. “Children in rows of desks. A teacher in front of the room. You might have a white board instead of a blackboard, but fundamentally the classroom is the same, yet our children are different.”
Today’s children are growing up with iPads, iPhones and computers, he said. Yet, schools continue to treat technology as an add-on rather than an essential.
In the flush days of the Georgia Lottery, there was money to pay for technology in schools along with HOPE scholarships and pre-k. Local systems received so much lottery cash for hardware, said Garrett, that “we joked that we created a new state flower. Instead of the Cherokee Rose, we had the satellite dish because one of those ugly things sprang up in the yard of every school in the state.”
But the lottery now can’t even fully fund HOPE and pre-k, so districts pay for their own technology. Garrett says this exacerbates the gap between wealthy systems that can afford the latest innovations and the poor rural ones “that are probably still using Apple IIes.”
Maureen Downey, for the AJC Get Schooled blog