Folks, let me just jump right in this morning and get your blood pumping faster even before your first sip of coffee. I want to talk to you about schools and taxes. Ready?
Our local superintendent of schools was quoted last week as saying he would never support shifting the burden of taxes required to run the public schools to people occupying lower layers of income earners. Well, I admire Steve Whatley and the job he's done for decades in our school system, and what he said does not change my lofty opinion of him one iota.
However, my superintendent is hired by "we, the people," to run the schools, period. Where his money comes from is the people's business. And right now, the overwhelming majority of property owners, along with senior citizens on fixed incomes, are pretty much past ready to change the way schools are financed.
Statistics indicate that the middle class pays a whopping 84 percent of all taxes paid in our country each year. And while I understand that regressive taxes - like sales taxes - hit lower income folks a tad bit harder than anyone else since one penny to a person living on welfare constitutes a bigger percentage than one penny to a millionaire, consider that the public schools are overwhelmingly populated with lower income students. Just look at the percentage of kids in our county, state, and across our nation for that matter, who eat free or reduced cost meals. Who pays the freight for that? You guessed it - the middle class.
In this election year, everyone seems to be throwing around words like "equality" and "opportunity." Well, it's easy to talk about how you want to ride on the train of equal opportunity, as long as you don't have to pay the freight.
Let me emphasize this: I have known Steve Whatley for a long time, and I admire the job he has done, and I have every reason to believe he is the absolutely right person in the right spot to conduct the business of education - as it is currently presented and operated. This is not a criticism of our local school superintendent in any way, shape, form or fashion.
However, his quote hath opened Pandora's Box. And once the Genie is out of that bottle, it's next to impossible to coax it back inside. In other words, y'all, Mr. Whatley presented the soapbox to me, I have climbed atop it, and here I go.
With regard to schools, it's way past time to chuck the deal where property owners pay the freight. The majority of people in this county who send their kids to public schools are renters, and the majority of those kids come from the lower income segments of our society. They don't pay property tax and they don't contribute in any financial way toward operating the schools, but they surely do show up in the principal's office regularly.
The school system that made America great is dead, folks. Dead and gone, and nobody even gave it a decent burial. If those bleeding hearts who think kids who populate today's public schools are going to take care of old folks one day, they haven't been to schools lately and seen what the situation is. Today's schools have been harnessed by legislative attempts to make every kid as smart as every other kid, have had the paddle taken out of the teacher's hand and have had to hire lawyers to craft the wording of discipline policies in order to meet ACLU standards, and have had to remove spiritual and moral education from the classroom.
In no way do our Georgia public schools of the 21st century resemble the school system which existed in America prior to the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Clinging to segregation until the fall of 1969, Georgia's public schools were still not ready for integration when it came at the ruling of a Federal judge in Boston. We've been fighting the battle of bringing everyone up to snuff ever since, throwing money at problems money can't fix.
How's that coffee?
So what will we do about our schools? What kind of revolution must take place? Elected officials are overwhelmed, upon taking office, by the amount of legal information they have to absorb just to know what they can say, and what they can and cannot do, in public meetings. Non-elected school officials have their careers and retirements vested in keeping things going just the way they are until they can retire. Sadly, many of even the most dedicated folks I know in public education are counting down the days until they can get out, and are hoping their world won't be rocked before they retire.
Here's what I think. We don't need to build any more schools, at all. We have enough schools presently in operation or under construction to handle the system's requirements. What we need now is the will to implement double shifts at each and every school facility. In other words, turn each school into two schools. Georgia Code Annotated §20-2-690(c)(5) requires a school day to last four and one-half hours. So let's tune our schools to run "Day School" for half a day, and operate "Night School" for half a day. Throw three hours in between the end of "Day School" and the start of "Night School" for both schools to practice their extra-curricular activities and hold faculty meetings and parent conferences. Utilize our facilities to the max, 24-7-365.
Eliminate the unfair practice of funding schools through property taxes on the already-beleaguered middle class, and fund the operation of our schools with sales taxes so that everyone pays the freight.
How's that coffee?
Nat Harwell is a Newton County resident whose column appears Sundays in The Covington News.