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Belton: Regarding Ga. education: Time to bridge the gap
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Teachers in Georgia should be proud that our high school graduation rate is at an all-time high of 79 percent (Newton was even better at 82 percent). Georgians should be pleased that we’ve increased our education spending last year (up 7 percent) more than any state in the South. But 95 percent of our schools have had to increase class sizes as families flock to Georgia seeking the plentiful jobs we’re creating (fourth best in the nation). Because of this influx, net funding per student in Georgia is actually down 17 percent since the recession, moving us down from No. 35 to No. 37 in per student spending.

Nationwide 300,000 teachers were lost during the recession while nearly a million students were added. Ten percent of Georgia teachers left last year, and the trend is expected to continue. Larger class sizes, too much testing, a lack of autonomy and overall disrespect are major reasons teachers are leaving.

Why should we care? Because in five short years, 60 percent of all jobs in America will require some sort of post-secondary education, while only 42 percent of our workers are educated enough to do those jobs. That is a huge gap — a colossal challenge caused by the new reality that the global marketplace has shrunk the planet so much that our children are now competing against 7 billion other people. And it’s the primary reason the General Assembly is so focused on education: specifically, STEM education.

STEM stands for Science, Technology, Engineering and Math. I love the humanities more than most, but the stark reality is that the jobs of the global marketplace are trending towards STEM.

STEM jobs pay very, very well. In fact, they nearly double today’s average salary ($86,000 vs $47,000). The average household income in Newton is $50,500. Georgia is $49,000. The highest STEM salaries are in Oil and Gas Extraction, Securities and Commodities Exchanges, Information Security, and Computer Services.

Computers dominate STEM jobs with seven of the top nine largest STEM occupations are directly related to computers. They are (in order) software developers, computer support specialists, computer system analysts, network specialists, sales of scientific products, computer information managers, programmers, mechanical engineers and civil engineers.

If Georgia must improve our educational game by a third in five short years, and technology is the wave of the future, then Georgia’s Technical Colleges will need to play a huge role. We should be proud that UGA and Georgia Tech are both ranked among the 10 best public universities in the nation, but we must now bridge the gap between high school and technical college, facilitating students obtaining college credits while in high school with programs like Move On When Ready, Dual Enrollment and Career Academies. All these programs have one thing in common… a determination to make our students uniquely qualified for the jobs that are coming.

The good news for Newton is that we already have a great career academy, recently recognized by Ford Motor Company as one of the four best in America. Realizing that all students learn differently, and partnering with dozens of different businesses, the teachers there provide hands-on opportunities and real world applications that keep students interested and engaged.

Overall, Georgia is moving in the right direction on many fronts. Still, we have monumental educational challenges ahead as we prepare our children for the next decade.

Dave Belton is in his second year as the District 112 Georgia Representative. The Morgan and Newton County representative is serving in his first term in Georgia’s House. He is a resident of Morgan County.