Here is an essay by Matt Jones, president of EmpowerED Georgia, a statewide education advocacy organization of students, citizens, parents and educators. He has taught world geography, civics, and English literature. He now teaches Engineering Technology at Toombs County High School in Lyons and is the Toombs County Teacher of the Year.
By Matt Jones
In a recent speech to the Marietta Council of the Cobb Chamber of Commerce, Georgia House Speaker David Ralston said that due to a $300 million shortfall in Medicaid, this upcoming session of the General Assembly would be “another year where you’re going to see budget cuts as opposed to adds.”
This means, unfortunately, that it is likely to be another year — the tenth consecutive — in which funding for Georgia’s public schools is less in terms of inflation-adjusted dollars than it was in FY 2002.
While most members of the General Assembly claim to support public education — and may actually believe that they do — the statistical evidence does not indicate even lukewarm support. In fact, the overall record of the Georgia General Assembly during the past decade indicates a greater willingness among many legislators to support alternatives to public schools than to support local public schools.
In the last decade, the actual per-student spending by the state has decreased by 25 percent in inflation-adjusted dollars—a total of $6.6 billion. The result: Two-thirds (121 out of 180) of Georgia school districts have had to shorten their school year and the number of classroom teachers has decreased by more than 4,000 while the number of students has grown by 37,000.
Most veteran members of the General Assembly claim that the recession beginning in 2008 left them with no choice except to cut public school spending, but that does not explain why K-12 programs have been reduced virtually every year since 2002. Nor does it explain how, under these dire budgetary restrictions, the General Assembly has miraculously been able to find funding for a private school tuition program and a new system of state charter schools.
If you ask your state representative or state senator whether he or she supports public education, it is almost a certainty that he or she will argue strongly in the affirmative and go on at length about the value of public education to our state.
Give public officials the opportunity to participate in a major school event where voters are present — or welcome local teachers and students to the state capitol—and they will generally fall all over themselves to smile, shake hands and praise the wonderful educators and students in their local schools.
The time has arrived when legislators must be held accountable for their votes on education issues and not be allowed to show support for public schools simply by posing for photos with school children and attending an occasional school event in their hometowns. No longer should legislators be allowed to give speeches at evening school meetings praising public education while voting during the day to cut public school budgets — especially when they are also voting to increase spending on alternatives to public schools.
It is certainly possible that most of our state legislators do value public education, but the day of truth has arrived. Given what Speaker Ralston recently said — that this is to be a year of budget cuts rather than increases — any legislator who votes to increase funding for programs such as Georgia’s private school tuition tax credits cannot claim to be a supporter of public education.
In past years, legislators who supported programs such as tuition tax credits, have claimed that the amount of money involved —$50 million— is just a drop in the bucket compared to the amount the state allocates for public schools, and therefore should not be viewed as a vote against public education. That excuse can no longer be accepted for two reasons.
1. Supporters of the program will continue to push for increased funding. (A bill will be introduced this session to double the tax credits allowed from $50 million to $100 million.)
2. The effects of more than a decade of reductions in state support for public schools have left many school systems in such dire financial conditions that a share of $100 million, or even $50 million, could make a major difference in their education programs. For example, in some south Georgia school systems, less than $1 million in additional funding could allow their schools to open for a full 180 days instead of the current abbreviated schedules.
This year’s session of the General Assembly will be a crucial one for public education and it will be a defining one for our legislators. With little or no additional revenue available for FY 2014, legislators have a clear choice. They can support efforts to provide additional funding for private school tax credits and other alternatives to public schools, or they can allocate that same amount of money to help rural public schools provide students with a full 180-day school year.
Any legislator who votes to provide state funds for private schools over public schools not only abandons their constitutional duty, but also their moral duty to provide the resources needed for every child to have a quality public education.
That is why in the upcoming session, EmpowerED Georgia will monitor how every legislator votes on every issue affecting public schools and let the public know which legislators support public schools in their actions as well as their words.
–From Maureen Downey, for the AJC Get Schooled blog