Georgia View: Schools Rule
Early in my career, when I was traveling Georgia with then-Secretary of State Max Cleland, he often spoke of the “holy trinity of church, home and school” that was such an important part of his early years in Lithonia and would help shape his world-view.
Georgia has 180 public school systems. In many counties, the school system is the largest employer. In FY 2011, K-12 public education will consume $7 billion of the Georgia state budget. Add in the University System of Georgia, lottery funds for pre-K and HOPE scholarships and obligations to our Teachers’ Retirement System, and education spending will consume $10.4 billion of total appropriated funds of $18.1 billion. Schools rule.
So why are we content with such a middling education product instead of demanding that our brightest and best step up and lead – from local PTAs to our local boards of education?
A disastrous flood in 1990 all but destroyed the public schools in Trion, a small town tucked away in northwest Georgia. By 1996, the newly re-built Trion City Schools (1,266 students) combined and relocated the pre-K, elementary and high schools to one campus, which is also arguably the center of the community.
Averaging available test scores from the National Center for Education Statistics, the Georgia Department of Education and the U.S. Department of Education for Georgia’s elementary, middle and high schools, you find that Trion has the second highest performing public school system in the state. If you think this is a fluke, Schley County (1,388 students, fifth place) in southwest Georgia slays most of the pack, and Chickamauga City Schools (1,342 students, eighth place) also has a stellar performance.
You can do this math yourself, or check out the website schooldigger.com. The top performing system in the state is currently the Forsyth County school system (32,374 students) on the north side of Metro Atlanta. And before you start defending your county or mentioning the challenges of urban school systems or extremely diverse systems with a heavy minority population, please note:
While Clayton County schools (49,508 students) became the first system in the nation to lose accreditation in 40 years in 2008, next-door neighbor Fayette County’s school system (22,118 students, third place) is consistently a top performer. And while Clarke County’s system (12,217 students) continues to experience challenges, despite the county’s being home to the highest percentage of college graduates in the state, the school system in the adjoining bedroom county, Oconee (6,462 students, fourth place), is in the top five.
So what do these high-ranking cities and counties have in common to provide such a superior education product? Local leadership.
Go to these school system websites and pull up the names of the members of their boards of education. You will find successful pillars of the community, bank and hospital presidents, prominent reverends as well as senior executives from some of the world’s largest corporations, all vested and invested in their schools and school boards.
Take a similar look at the boards of some of our state’s largest cities and in many cases you will find local activists or parents, once concerned about the performance of a particular school or cluster, some of whom ran as neighborhood activists and still view their local schools through that prism of parochialism.
The once and currently troubled boards of counties like Clayton, DeKalb County (99,775 students) and the City of Atlanta (49,032 students) oversee budgets in the hundreds of millions and manage superintendents who employ and direct the work of thousands. These are not jobs for the inexperienced or the untrained.
As Metro Atlanta and other Georgia cities became increasingly attractive to the Fortune 1000, transplants and homegrown residents alike became increasingly comfortable with simply putting their children into private schools rather than fighting to hold public systems more accountable or remaining involved in their day-to-day management and leadership.
Remove leadership from the equation, and remember that the primary difference between the western world and any third-world country is infrastructure. This includes human capital as well as roads, bridges and a working sewer system.