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Belton: Celebrate Newton County’s graduation rate increase
Dave Belton

In the fall of 2002, a prominent newspaper lead with this headline: “Georgia Ranks 50th on SAT.”

My, how things have changed …

You probably haven’t heard, but Georgia teachers have made incredible gains in the past few years. Georgia now boasts the 13th best advanced placement scores in America, we’ve topped the nation in the ACT for two years in a row, and for the first time in history, we beat the nation in two thirds of the SAT. Even better, our graduation rate skyrocketed 18 points (28 percent) in the past few years to a best-ever 82 percent. Newton County boasts a record 87 percent, up four points from a year ago and well above the state average. 

If a business posted such epic gains, it would celebrate…loudly. The CEO would brag about his great workers and financially reward their productivity. Rival businesses would tempt these workers away with big, fat salaries. Buoyed by the praise, these workers would be justly proud of the job they were doing. 

Not so in public education. Instead, Georgia teachers feel harassed and disrespected. 

Recent studies bear this out. New teacher enrollment is down 20 percent, “Baby Boom” teachers are retiring in record numbers (we lost 7,000 in the last few years), and 44 percent of new teachers leave during their first five years. Class sizes are busting at the seams (2,500 positions went unfilled last year) as turnover has risen to a crippling 16 percent. That means principals have to re-hire nearly one fifth of their staff…every single year. Such rampant turnover would crush most businesses. Even worse, morale is so poor that most Georgia teachers do not recommend the teaching profession to their own students.

This poses a huge problem as the number of children in Georgia climbs and climbs. Believe it or not, nearly one in four people in Georgia are children. 

We need a lot more teachers in Georgia, not less.  

Adding to the problem are pundits – on the Left and the Right – who make a career out of ridiculing teachers for every cultural ill. Students spend less than 10 percent of their childhood in a classroom, yet teachers are blamed for 100 percent of their bad behavior. Somehow, parents are no longer responsible for their own children: teachers are.  

The truth is, the “great teachers of your childhood” are still out there. They’re doing a magnificent job teaching a harder curriculum to a more diverse population than ever before. Parents who actually have children know this: 70 percent of them grade their schools as excellent. Adults who don’t have kids rank schools at a dismal 19 percent.

The conclusion is obvious. People who actually interact with teachers are genuinely impressed. On the other hand, people who don’t have any experience with today’s teachers rely on tired clichés.  

It’s one of the reasons teaching has never been harder than it is right now. The “great teachers of your childhood” didn’t have to worry about standardized testing, gangs, bad behavior, unsupportive parents, mountains of paperwork, an ever-expanding bureaucracy, or partisan fights. Yet despite these challenges, today’s Georgia teacher is putting out a quantifiably better product than ever before.

My daughter is a teacher. I can’t tell you how proud I am of her. I hear the enthusiasm in her voice when she talks about a child she’s reached. I see the determination in her eyes when she talks about a child she knows she can inspire. We need to empower passionate teachers; give them control of their classroom and watch them go. 

Education has improved during Governor Deal’s tenure more than in any other time in our state’s history. The General Assembly dedicates over half of its budget to education every single year, including adding half a billion dollars every year during the last decade and $2.5B in the last three years to education. In fact, 80 percent of the new monies collected in the past few years have been dedicated to education. So, while education should always be a non-partisan issue, business-minded Republicans (in particular) should be cheering the best-ever, historic and measurable victories of our Georgia teachers. 

You can either invest in teachers…or prison guards. I believe teachers are a better bet.

Belton is a Republican from District 112, serving in the Georgia House of Representatives.