My first week of legislative “work” is complete, and it has been a whirlwind. It is hard to imagine how any person can meet so many people and deal with so many issues so quickly. Luckily, I have a very good mentor in former Representative Doug Holt who is helping me wade through the distractions.
The governor has spoken to us many times. The two major issues on his agendas are transportation and education. Transportation will come first, and will be very controversial. He and the leadership are convinced we need $1.5 billion in new spending for transportation every year for the next 10 years. With a total budget of $20 billion, that is at least a 5 percent increase. I have heard zero good ways to raise that revenue, and the plan is viewed skeptically amongst house members, myself included.
I won’t comment further until the governor or leadership releases an actual plan. Education is more familiar to me, and I am very pleased to announce that I was appointed a member of the Education Committee. That is a really big deal, as 30 members were jockeying for only two slots. The fact that I secured it as a freshman is especially exciting. I was also named to the Economic Development Committee, which will allow me to learn how to bring new, innovative businesses to Newton, especially in the film industry.
So why is education such a big deal? I’m not sure when it happened — probably around the time I was flying helicopters over the Giza Pyramids or airplanes into Sarajevo. But sometime around then — after the Berlin Wall fell down — the challenge for America changed from the epic confrontation of the Cold War to the subtle struggle of globalization.
Globalization summons both good and bad connotations. But one thing is clear: our children will have to be much smarter than you and I. Children in countries all over the world want what we have and are aggressively competing to get it. That means the days of cruising through high school and getting a good, stable job are over. Your children will have to compete for things we took for granted.
I am not an isolationist. I’m not saying America’s finest days are over. What I am saying is that your children must fight harder for the same financial and economic security we had. Will Rogers once joked, “Our schools aren’t as good as they used to be, and they never were.” That certainly seems true today when you look at some of Georgia’s scores. But those raw numbers do not convey the truth that these tests are getting harder, not easier. They are getting more complicated, because the jobs are more intricate than they were back then.
Teachers all over the nation have significantly “raised the bar” by increasing the rigor of our schools. That is a fact.
Rigor means harder. Rigor means more expectations. The era of No Child Left Behind was largely a fiasco, as Washington laid out the plan so poorly. But one thing it did was to raise the expectations of our schools. They have never been more scrutinized than they are today.
The results are showing. Georgia’s graduation rate has risen 3 years in a row to 72.5%. That is not a great number — we are losing far too many of our children — but it is historically high. In the “roaring 20’s” the national graduation rate was a mere 20%. In the 1950’s it was 50%. Georgia is graduating more - not fewer - seniors than before. But graduating high school is not enough any more. Is that because our schools are horrible? No, it means that because of globalization, the marketplace demands a highly trained workforce that can do very complicated jobs.
The Governor is putting a huge emphasis on post high school education, both in universities and in what we used to call “trade” or “technical” schools. The vast majority of new jobs — some 60% — will go to workers with technical skills. He also wants more ways to graduate and more choices to educate our children.
We can either build good schools or good prisons. We owe it to our children to provide each and every one of them — in unique and individualized ways — with the very best opportunities for their futures.
Dave Belton is the newly elected 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.