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Posted: July 30, 2017 5:00 a.m.

Belton: Education is key in Georgia

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I periodically like to update you where we are as a state. Last week I talked about how efficient and small our state government is, as well as the strength of our powerful economic engines. This week I’d like to focus on education and the health of our rural counties.

Around 53 percent of Georgia’s budget goes to education. That is a very high number. In fact, Georgia ranks fifth best in the nation in terms of how much of a percentage our total state budget goes to education. Our graduation rate recently climbed from 64 to 79 percent – a remarkable 23 percent in seven years – yet Georgia still only ranks about 35th in the nation in K12 education. That is above most Southern states, but below Virginia (seventh), Florida (14th), North Carolina (19th), and Texas (21st).

So…why can’t we fix education? The most obvious answer is that Georgia has a lot of children: the fifth highest population of any state. As we now have over 1.8 million students and 2.5 million children overall, almost one in four Georgians have yet to be educated. Thus, any attempt to “raise the needle” is very expensive. For example, we just boosted the teacher retirement fund by $450 million, gave teachers another pay raise, and added $1.3 million to education. In fact, since 1992, Georgia has added an average of half a billion dollars – every single year – to Education. But despite these massive increases, we are barely keeping up with the growing tide of new students. (Including federal dollars, Georgia spends $20 billion on education every year.)

But another reason we rank so poorly in education is because of our high poverty rate. Despite the fantastic job creation in Atlanta, Georgia’s poverty rate is fifthworst in the nation (worse than every southern state), and our number of economically distressed counties is foruth worst. While Atlanta is flourishing, our rural counties are in decline, which is why the Speaker of the House has placed such an emphasis on this problem.

Young people are moving from the country to the city. This is a world-wide phenomenon, but especially true of Atlanta; a city that doubled since 1984, quadrupled since 1978, and expects to grow from 5.6 million to 8 million people by 2040. The ATL is the fifth best city in the U.S. in producing new jobs, third best in median income rise, the eighth best city in terms of economic output, and was just ranked the "Best City in the Nation to Start a Business." It has the third most Fortune 1,000 businesses and will host the College Football Championship, the Super Bowl, and the Final Four in the next three years. While rural counties’ job growth is a mere 1.6 percent, Atlanta’s is a frantic 12 percent.

Rural counties in Georgia are losing businesses and declining in population. In fact, most counties in Georgia have fewer people than they did in WWII, while the ATL has grown 19 times (from 302,000 to 5.6M million) since then. Rural counties also have much older populations; 22 percent are older than 65, while Atlanta only has 15 percent. Those numbers are growing farther apart as millennials are growing in Atlanta by 25 percent, but actually going down in rural areas by 3 percent. This means that a declining group of workers in the rural counties must support a growing number of retirees. The only economic “bright spots” in rural Georgia are our military bases to the tune of $20 billion a year: another reason I am working so hard to preserve them.

Poor education in the rural areas is exacerbating the problem. Not water, not energy, not infrastructure, but work force development has become the number one issue affecting job creation in every industry. Businesses today locate because of talent, not location. When rural counties’ high school dropout rate is twice that of Atlanta, it’s not hard to figure where new jobs are going.

On the bright side, HOPE has transformed Georgia’s university system into the best dollar-per-value education in America. HOPE Career Grant means Georgia will pay 100 percent of all technical college expenses with a guaranteed job in 12 needed areas. Did I mention that it is completely free? Move on When Ready allows kids to get free college credit while in high school, and the REACH Scholarship continues to be a bridge to college for those who could otherwise not afford it. Georgia is focusing on STEM initiatives and technical colleges like never before, a necessary trend as STEM jobs are literally doubling every other job sector. In fact, every single top 10 highest-paying occupations for students completing college are now all in STEM. The educational opportunities and jobs are out there, it’s just a matter of convincing students in high school to attain them.

It’s incredible that Georgia has remained the "Best State in the Nation to do Business" for four years in a row. If we’re to keep that lofty designation, we need to work harder to increase education opportunities everywhere, especially our rural areas which need it so much. Still, despite our many flaws, Georgians are blessed to be living in the very best state in the very best nation the world has ever known.

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