Shipp: Is the improvement of education a dead issue in Georgia?
Education improvement has gone out of style as a political issue, right at a time when it really hurts.
Just a few years back, upgrading education was the No. 1 plank in nearly every governor's platform. An enlightened business community formed committees of chief executives to recommend increases in the quality of learning and create a better-educated workforce. Magnet schools, junior colleges and adult literacy classes sprang up across the state. "Education reform" was on every public agenda, from the White House to the statehouse.
Then the lights went out in the schoolhouse. The 9/11 terrorists might be partly to be blame. Until 9/11, President Bush had made improving schools a national priority. He seemed destined to be an accomplished domestic-issues president.
On a single morning early in his first term, Bush's "No Child Left Behind" program turned into just another unfunded, back-burner mandate. The president had wars to fight. Besides, educators despised the accountability aspects of NCLB.
A year later, Georgians elected a governor who promised to scrap his predecessor's school reform. Business leaders' enthusiasm waned. Thanks to computers and the Internet, big corporations could hire cheaper and better-trained laborers in Shanghai, China or New Delhi, India than in, say, Hahira or Crawfordville. So why sweat trying to develop smarter workers in the Peach State?
In the past three years, Georgia has fallen nearly $1 billion short of its commitment to public schools. Also, the University System of Georgia has been stripped of more than $700 million.
Gov. Sonny Perdue is making speeches at church-sited Republican rallies promising to use lottery money for programs other than HOPE scholarships and prekindergarten classes. As usual, Perdue has been short on details, but it's not hard to guess where the advocate of "faith-based" programs plans to put more state dollars from gambling.
House Majority Leader Jerry Keen, R-St. Simons, is pushing a regressive sales tax increase to replace property taxes as a means of financing public schools. Some heavily taxed businesses are pleased, though Georgia enjoys some of the lowest property taxes in the nation. Also, sales taxes are an unstable source of revenue, at best.
The University of Georgia reports a record year for fundraising. A close inspection of the books reveals, however, that the lion's share of contributions came from the athletics department's additional assessments for ballgame tickets - and a nationally ranked football team. Donations for knowledge enrichment lagged.
Public opinion pollsters report that "education improvement" remains a top concern of Georgia voters, though no one seems to know the precise meaning of that phrase. None of the experts can say for sure whether pollsters are getting disingenuous responses or heartfelt answers.
If the latter is true, Georgia might need a different sort of leadership.