Opinion

Georgia’s education plans target adults over students

The single largest line item in Georgia’s annual budget is for K-12 education. This year, Georgians will invest $10 billion in our public schools. That represents roughly 40 cents of every dollar the state will spend.

This represents “full funding” of Georgia’s Quality Basic Education formula passed under Gov. Joe Frank Harris. This is also an election year, so this record amount of education spending is not the headline. “More” is.

It’s tradition for Democratic candidates to promise more money for education. Stacey Abrams is no exception. While her website promises to bring additional funding to K-12 education, she also takes aim at Georgia’s popular student scholarship program that has helped more than 10,000 students find better education options outside of the school to which they are assigned because of where they live.

Brian Kemp has decided to enter the bidding war on education spending with a plan to raise teacher salaries by $5,000. According to his campaign, this would cost the state an additional $600 million per year.

Regardless of the specifics or lack thereof from either campaign, we generally know where we’re headed. “More” is being promised. They’re haggling over the price.

It’s important to note that beginning with Georgia’s performance standards under Gov. Sonny Perdue and former School Superintendent Kathy Cox, Georgia students’ academic and graduation performance have greatly improved. Georgia’s graduate rate is at an all-time high.

Gov. Nathan Deal’s tenure expanded school choice, codified the State Charter Schools Commission in our constitution, and began a focus on accountability for under-performing schools. While his “Opportunity School District” did not ultimately pass as a constitutional amendment, districts with chronically failing schools suddenly found the sense of urgency to make changes.

Now that Georgia’s schools have established a positive upward trend and have record revenues available to them, the discussion going forward is focused too much on money, and not enough on accountability. In fact, many of the measurements that have ensured Georgians are getting a return on their investment in public education are being scaled back or eliminated.

School Superintendent Richard Woods, also up for re-election, is pledging to eliminate the A-F grading system for schools, the 100-point grading system for schools, and decrease the impact of testing on measuring a schools’ performance. Instead, more use of “opportunity indicators” will determine how schools are measured.

Let’s be clear what this means. It will be easier to hide failing schools, and thus the students that are being failed by our system. Instead, we will be headed on a path that once again measures our schools based on what we put into them, not what results they are producing.

We can have a robust debate on what is the proper amount needed to educate a student in Georgia. We need an equal focus on what is the proper way to hold a school system accountable for the state tax dollars they receive.

It should not be considered an insult to educators to insist on objective measurements. This is how deficiencies in our system can be recognized, properly addressed, and fixed. Teachers need not be scapegoated to hold a bureaucracy accountable.

Eliminating most objective standards and easy to understand point/letter grading systems does nothing but encourage mediocrity or worse, hides failure. It’s ultimately the students that pay the price long after they have left our school systems.

The progress Georgia has made in education cannot be taken for granted. Adding additional funding to a system while reducing performance accountability and transparency sends exactly the wrong message at the wrong time.

It would be nice to hear more specifics from both candidates for governor and school superintendent as to how their plans would impact individual students. As of now, their focus seems squarely on the adults – and their votes.

Charlie Harper is the publisher of GeorgiaPol.com and the Executive Director of PolicyBEST, which focuses on Georgia policy issues of Business Climate, Education, Science & Medicine, and Transportation.

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