Of all the political phenomena in Georgia over the last several years, perhaps nothing has been more surprising than the return of our politicians' open disregard for public education and our electorate's acceptance of their attitude and actions.
Over the last third of the 20th century, Georgia's elected officials, responding to the voters, at least tried to appear concerned about improving our state's schools. Granted, their rhetoric was often loftier than their actions, and many of our public officials failed to do right by our schoolchildren over the decades. Nonetheless, pressure to improve schools from voters was strong enough that at least some priority was placed on public education. Georgians knew that our public education system could no longer be a relic of the post-Civil War plan to attract jobs by luring industrialists seeking ignorant, low-skilled workers who would toil for cheap. Politicians responded by paying at least some attention to the schools.
In the 1980s voter sentiment drove then - Gov. Joe Frank Harris, a Democrat but one of the most conservative major politicians of his day, to propose the Quality Basic Education Act (QBE), which committed the state to providing substantial funding to local school systems for basic operations, including everything from teacher salaries to text books to extracurricular activities. In fact, over the next decade and a half, state support for public primary and secondary education rose to the point where school systems received more than half of their operating funds from state QBE funding.
As we survey Georgia's political landscape in the first decade of the 21st century, it sometimes feels like the clock has been turned back 100 years. Political sentiment under the Gold Dome is at best uninterested, and at worst hostile, to the interests of the students who depend on our public schools for an education. What is perhaps even stranger is that the politicians who shortchange our schoolchildren seem to pay little or no price with the public for their actions.
You have likely read in this column and elsewhere about the continuing "austerity cuts" that Gov. Sonny Perdue and the state legislators have imposed on our local school systems by intentionally shorting the state funding formula set by QBE. Those cuts have totaled more than $1.5 billion during Perdue's tenure as governor, and have been imposed in good times as well as bad, even as the state has spent our tax dollars on everything from fishing tournaments to new state aircraft to run-of-the-mill pork projects for assorted well-connected politicos.
You probably felt the pinch of the QBE cuts when you received your local property tax bill, which reflects increases that local school systems have imposed to partially make up for the state funding shortfall, even as your state taxes remain as high as ever. If you have kids enrolled in public school, you may have seen the cuts' results, with more students jammed into classrooms, elective courses and extracurricular activities eliminated, and more turnover in the ranks of teachers.
Even if you haven't noticed the effects of the state government's shorting of our schools yet, you (and our elected officials) may well soon. Right now a case is working its way through the state court system asserting that Georgia's method of funding public schools violates the state constitution because it results in uneven resources for students' education in various parts of the state. The state's rural school districts are suing, asserting that their low property values (and consequently low property tax proceeds) mean that their students are treated unfairly compared to students in better-off locales, especially suburban Atlanta.
Perdue's QBE cuts have exacerbated the funding disparity between school districts and make it more likely that the lawsuit will succeed. When plaintiffs in similar suits in other states have succeeded, the aftermath of the ruling has been budgetary and political havoc, as state leaders scramble to find ways to fund court-imposed mandates to increase state dollars for poorer school districts, and citizens in wealthier parts of the state fume at being taxed to educate someone else's kids.
To illustrate the difficulty the state is having in defending its school funding in court, consider the testimony of Joanne Leonard, the director of accountability for state School Superintendent Kathy Cox. Leonard asserted in her testimony in the case that Georgia students can be "adequately educated" while failing to learn about science or social studies. "Wow" is about the only word that can describe such a statement from a state education leader.
If the case succeeds, it may end up being the political equivalent of shock therapy for Georgia's voters and elected officials. The lawsuit's outcome may be painful, but at least it has a chance to return us all to reality on the subject of school funding.
A personal note: I was overwhelmed by the messages of condolence at the passing of the love of my life, Renate, my bride of 51 years. Kind notes of compassion came from every corner of the state, from fans and critics, from Republicans and Democrats. Thank you for caring.
You can reach Bill Shipp at P.O. Box 2520, Kennesaw, GA 30156, e-mail: email@example.com, or Web address: billshipponline.com.