Former educator sees odd priorities of state legislators

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Patricia Stokes

Patricia Stokes

By Patricia Stokes

Nothing is more precious to me than my children and my grandchildren. Second to that, the children who attend public school in Morgan County have been precious to me since 1996 and always will be. I know that since 1996 some of the Morgan County High School graduates are now young adults who run our banks, work in our healthcare facilities, invest our money, and generally keep our fabulous cities and county moving forward. We have long heard that investing in our children is investing in our future, and nothing is more important than that investment today in an economy looking for a boost.

Still, those who make our laws and fund our public schools somehow put the public education priority way, way down the list. I know that the majority of our legislators represent Metro Atlanta because that is where the majority of the state’s population lives, so they heavily influence the state budget. I also know that Metro Atlanta school systems have gotten some really bad press for doing some really unwise things in the past few years, which likely has colored legislators’ attitudes about public schools. Nevertheless, it is bad business to assume all public school systems are like the errant mega-systems, and killing public education rather than curing it is a giant mistake. Doing it for the sake of investing in funds supposedly to attract economic development and to build large reserves that can be spent at the whim of the Governor is bad policy and will bite us all in the end.

Alan Essig, the Director of the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute at Georgia State University, has made it his business to follow this issue carefully. He recently published a column in several newspapers in the state about how cutting funds for public education hurts economic development, a position strongly held by the Georgia Partnership for Educational Excellence. Essig uses Clarke County, our neighbors, as his example regarding the enormous state cuts and their impact on Athens and the surrounding area. According to him, they have cut teaching positions; cut paraprofessionals for first grade classes; cut teacher pay; eliminated administrators; and shortened their school year. Their situation is typical of most school systems outside the Atlanta “Ring.”

In 1937 the Georgia Legislature passed a law that all schoolchildren must attend school a minimum of seven months out of the year. Systems varied how they met that requirement around an agriculture-based society, but it amounted to 140 school days. Though current Georgia law requires 180 days for students, 60 percent of systems, with state approval, have cut the number of days for students. There are some systems that have trimmed their student calendars to 135 days, less than was required in 1937. Some argue that, yes, they cut the number of days, but they have created longer school days to make up the difference. Those people have never dealt with 5- to 7-year-olds after 2 p.m. The little children just wear out, and there is not much hope for teaching them to read and do math after that hour. The result is less time spent on the very basics that we all agree are crucial to future educational and career success.

At the same time, class sizes have increased because the law allows systems to get waivers from the state Board of Education for the maximum number of students allowed in a class. I started teaching English in 1966 to classes of 40 ninth graders in Clayton County, during their boom growth years. Needless to say, five classes of 40 students equaled 200 essays to grade whenever I got brave enough to assign an essay. If I spent 10 minutes on each essay looking at content, usage and grammar, that meant I spent 33 hours after school and at home grading those papers. At two hours per night after dinner and getting children to bed and five hours over the weekend, that meant it took me over two weeks to get all the papers graded. By the time I returned them, the students could hardly remember what their topic was. We are well on the way to those class sizes again. Every time the state cuts their share (yes, they only pay a share) of a teacher’s salary, the school systems have to eliminate a teacher and send those students to another teacher to pick up the difference. Somehow, again, we are headed in the wrong direction. How long can we ask our best teachers to teach more and more students at less and less pay? Some teaching couples have sacrificed an entire month’s pay here in Morgan County when you add the furlough days of the two teachers together, and next year looks even more meager. It is worse in other rural school systems.

Programs that greatly benefit all our children, such as the International Baccalaureate program, Advanced Placement courses, Career and Vocational programs, band, art, chorus, and other classes that make high schools exceptional are slowly being cut to the point of extinction in many districts. These are the very opportunities that put exceptional high schools on national lists of “Best High Schools in America” like Morgan County High school has been for several years. It has not happened here yet, but it is already happening in other places, so we can only conclude that the future looks dim for the funding necessary to keep everything going without the county’s entitled state funding.

The general public is not aware of the number of systems in Georgia that are on the brink of bankruptcy right now. The only way they can survive is to borrow money in anticipation of local property taxes coming in late in the year or early next year. That interest is paid on the back of the local property taxpayers. We are lucky in Morgan that we have not had to face that issue here. There are systems not too far from us that are facing it, today. The Georgia legislature is required by law to allocate funds for specific components of a “quality, basic education.” The law has not been followed since fiscal year 2002, and efforts are underway to slowly amend the law to require the state to do less and less.

Some would argue that we need to cut back to “readin’, ‘riting, and ‘rithmatic,” and I, for one, would like for us to continue to show progress in those areas the way we have over the last generation, but not at the expense of courses and classes that will prepare our children to compete globally and to enjoy a quality of life we have come to expect in America. No one at Baxter will hire job applicants who can only read, write, and do basic math; they will want much more. Education does impact economic development. If we are to see more industry come to Morgan County to help us relieve property taxes, we are going to have to show prospective businesses graduates who are ready to learn skills in on-the-job training programs at businesses, or in technical college, or advanced skills in colleges and universities. We cannot afford to continue going back in time in Georgia.

Essig sent out an important message in his column: “Georgia lawmakers have returned to their districts, where they’ll hear from the people who put them in office. Let them know how much you value high-quality education for yourself, your children and your grandchildren. Remind them that slash-and-burn budgeting does not clear a path to prosperity. And tell them you expect a major course correction when they head to Atlanta for next year’s General Assembly.” Well said, Alan.

That would be for most of Morgan County, and Give them a gentle piece of your mind for our children’s sake!

Patricia Stokes is a former superintendent of the Morgan County School System and a veteran educator.

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