There is one policy area that befuddles Georgia politicians and voters alike. The condition of our public education system doesn’t match the otherwise generally positive perception of the state.
Georgia, in whole, is viewed as place of opportunity. It is among the nation’s fastest growing states. It’s consistently ranked as a top place to do business. And yet, many of our rankings for education continue to bump along in the bottom quartile.
We’ve spent the past several weeks explaining the various geographic regions of the state that represent Georgia’s ruling political coalitions. Today, we’ll use these regions to explain why these same factions allow inertia to prevail in protecting much of the status quo for education.
Let’s start with the biggest of the regions, the Atlanta suburbs. These are the voters who may value public education most of all. They, after all, “voted with their feet” when choosing to live within a reasonable distance from the urban core, but also in an area with excellent (or at least above average) public schools.
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As such, they also don’t see failing schools as an issue for them. They do understand that there’s a problem that needs to be corrected. They will, however, vigorously fight any solution that would impact the schools that they chose to live near, and to which they dedicate their taxes.
This was recently demonstrated during the 2016 ballot referendum on the Opportunity School District, which would have allowed the state to take over failing schools. Many suburban voters living in areas with excellent schools saw a fear of precedent in letting the state usurp local control, lest their schools be next.
The voting power of suburbanites when considering education policy should never be underestimated. Given that these voters make up roughly 40% of the state’s population — and the quality of their schools is perhaps the singular factor that unites suburban Atlantans — any policy proposal starts with this bloc having almost enough votes to pass or doom legislation.
Then there are three regions whose schools need some significant help, but political and economic barriers stand in the way. The urban core is a collection of haves and have-nots. The haves have private schools. The have-nots have some of the worst performing schools in the state. The result is those who begin life in poverty aren’t given sufficient tools to escape it.
While these schools often spend the most money in the state, the only plan their leaders often back (with the clear direction from Democrat-tied national teachers’ unions) is to spend even more money. Voters, however, have been demanding change. The population density combined with the concentration of failing schools has made the area ripe for charter schools as an option.
Rural Georgia — both in the mountains and south Georgia — is even more intriguing. Much of these areas is majority Republican, just like the Atlanta suburbs. One would think that would make Republican-led education solutions easier to pass and implement. This thinking would not be correct.
Rural Georgia faces several challenges to improve education quality. Sparse population density doesn’t allow for many charter school options. The state does have virtual charter schools (I serve on the board on one), but with access to high speed broadband limited in much of rural Georgia, even the choice of a virtual school is off limits to many.
A much bigger problem, however, is that for many communities, the local school district is the largest employer. In a circular flow equally troublesome to that in the urban core, those who need to lift the quality of their schools to promote economic development for tomorrow often don’t because those changes may cost jobs today.
This leaves the coast as the remaining region, and theoretically in a positon to determine the balance of power. The coast, however, is the least homogeneous of the regions. When it comes to education, it has pockets of urban, suburban, and rural schools that mirror the statewide problems of each.
Thus, we’re left with a state that isn’t likely to raise taxes to fix education, as the bulk of voters in areas dominated by the majority party already have good schools and loathe tax increases. School choice is going to be thwarted where possible when it threatens those good school systems, threatens those who look at rural systems as jobs programs, or threatens well-established career ladders in areas where teachers’ unions control campaign donations for elected leaders.
The result is that a lot of folks talk about improving education, but Georgia may be losing its way. Education reform will need a new champion when Gov. Nathan Deal finishes his term. The political consultant class knows as they look at statewide candidates for 2018 that there’s a calculus of figuring out how many votes are added versus those that are lost once details are added to the equation.
Instead of structural reform, you’ll see more talk about equating education to career skills development. That’s not a bad thing if it makes policymakers focus on what long-term return we’re getting on our education investments. It’s a very bad thing if it’s just a ruse to avoid figuring out how to put together the coalitions needed to solve very real, very persistent problems.
Charlie Harper, executive director of PolicyBEST, a public policy think tank, is also the publisher of GeorgiaPol.com, a website dedicated to state & local politics of Georgia.