Repeat after Thurbert Baker: We need more money for education, but I don’t have to pay for it. We need more money for …
Now snap out of it. Both premises are false, and the second one illustrates how we got into the fiscal mess we face.
Baker, Georgia’s attorney general and a Democratic candidate for governor, last week unveiled a plan to introduce state-operated bingo and spend the proceeds on public schools.
Within a decade, Baker says, bingo could pump $2 billion annually into Georgia’s schools. That’s more than twice what our existing gambling monopoly, the state lottery, provides. We’re led to believe that this astounding sum won’t cannibalize the lottery or (further) endanger the HOPE scholarship.
But spending more money on schools, until the last recession, has not been a problem in Georgia. Adjusted for inflation, Georgia’s education spending rose from just under $6,500 per student in 1991 to almost $8,600 in 2005, according to the Center for an Educated Georgia. That’s an increase of almost a third. From 1980 to 2005, spending doubled.
The result? Our high school graduation rate fell 6 percentage points to 9 percentage points from 1991 to 2005, depending on which data you use.
So, a Georgia kindergartner in fall 1991 was less likely to finish high school, after a two-decade spending surge, than his cousin in the Class of ’91.
Twenty-one states, ranging from California to South Dakota to, yes, Alabama, spend less per pupil than we do (adjusted for cost of living) but have higher graduation rates.
It’s time to stop judging our commitment to education by how much we spend on it. Money only matters if we have the right educational model to produce more and better-prepared graduates.
Real political courage lies in asking if we have that — and what to do if we don’t.
There are many ways to improve our schools. We could make better use of virtual education to broaden the academic subjects and learning methods available to students in a cost-effective way. We could encourage the opening of more creative schools, and help more students access alternatives to traditional public schools.
We might also ask if Georgians are well-served by having more than 180 school systems — with the attendant high-paid administrators — even though some of them have fewer K-12 students than do many metro Atlanta high schools.
Get the model right, and then we can talk about money.
But even then, we shouldn’t send the bill to bingo players. While promising people something for nothing is probably as old as politics itself, we have turned it into an art of late.
Republicans support lower taxes and Democrats more spending. Combining the two is just about the only act of bipartisanship you’ll see. But we can’t afford that mix any more. And I doubt elected officials can find much more money in fees and fines and stealth taxes, although I’m certain they’ll try.
If you advocate lower taxes, name the expenses you’d cut. If you say education (or transportation, or whatever) needs more money, have the courage of your convictions and tell voters that they have to pay for it.
I don’t mean to pick on Baker. His opponents’ school-funding plans include dubious claims about uncollected sales taxes (Dubose Porter), rhetoric about closing the Capitol (Roy Barnes) and, well, something (John Oxendine).
Find the candidate willing to do more than rearrange the desks in Georgia’s classrooms.