I wondered about that question after meetings with Georgia’s last Democratic governor, Roy Barnes, and House Majority Whip Edward Lindsey, R-Atlanta. The men sat down with the AJC recently to discuss education issues in the state.
In many areas, the two leaders — both noted for their interest in education — see eye to eye.
“Just because a child is born in Schley County and not Forsyth County, you cannot constitutionally justify that child is going to receive an inferior education just because of an accident of birth,” said Barnes.
Speaking to AJC reporters a week later, Lindsey said much the same thing. “The fact of where a child is born should not determine whether they are going to have a future or not. Wherever a child is born, we have to concentrate on how to get them the education they need.”
Where the two leaders disagree is over the fundamental definition of public education: Is schooling a collective concern funded and governed by the community, or a private decision best left to parents even when some public dollars may be involved?
“What made us different as a people is that we did not ration education,” said Barnes. “We decided every child will receive an adequate education, and it became the key to social mobility. When you weaken the public school system, you destroy the fabric that holds us together.”
But the public school system isn’t working for many children, said Lindsey, citing the overall state high school graduation of 69.9 percent. “If my children brought home success records like this from school, it would be time for serious changes. It should be same for the Georgia’s education system.
“One thing I have learned in nine years is that no matter how dysfunctional a government program is or how bad a problem is, there is always going to be somebody who has a vested interest in the status quo,” said Lindsey.
The tensions between these views have fueled the ongoing debates in the General Assembly over whether Georgia ought to be increasing its investment in the traditional public education system or embracing alternatives, including independent charter schools, vouchers and privatization.
In recent years, the latter position has prevailed in the Legislature, which has focused on devising exit plans out of the school down the street.
The General Assembly has approved vouchers for special needs students to apply at private schools. It fought all the way to the state Supreme Court for the power to approve and fund charter schools over the objections of local school boards. When it lost in court, the Legislature won voter approval to change the constitution through a November referendum.
Legislators enacted a scholarship tax credit program — now under fire for blatant abuses — that subsidizes private-school tuition. Thus far, the program has diverted $170 million from the state treasury.
Lawmakers are now considering a constitutional amendment — spurred by parents in Dunwoody — that would allow newly formed cities to break with their county systems and create their own neighborhood schools.
In an argument that could eventually lead to vouchers, Republicans maintain that the “money should follow the students because it’s their money.”
But few households pay enough in property taxes to cover the $8,000 a year it costs, on average, to educate a student in Georgia. So, do the education dollars paid by all taxpayers belong to the students or to the community?
While Lindsey avoids the pejorative”government schools” rhetoric of some of his GOP colleagues, he said, “Parents should be able to adapt education dollars to fit with their child’s needs.”
At the same time, he cautioned that Georgia can’t write off public schools, which still serve 93 percent of the state’s children.
“I am a great believer in public education,” Lindsey said. “I am a great believer that APS needs to succeed. These are the kids who are most in need of public education. That’s their shot. For the most part, those parents don’t have the choice of Westminster or Paideia.”
But Barnes contends that the Legislature’s deep cuts to public education — cuts that have forced all districts to raise class sizes and 65 percent of them to abbreviate their school years to less than 180 days — are sabotaging the schools and feeding public discontent.
“Instead of improving public education,” said Barnes, “they just decided to tank it.”
–From Maureen Downey, for the AJC Get Schooled blog