To improve schools, address poverty and involve teachers

Educators and their supporters revved up the “Red for Ed” movement this summer,  pushing for increased state investment in schools and teachers.
Educators and their supporters revved up the “Red for Ed” movement this summer,  pushing for increased state investment in schools and teachers.

With the Georgia election season now entering hyperdrive, here’s a guest column urging elected officials to support real education reform that brings teachers to the table and addresses how poverty and health care impede student success.

This column carries three bylines; Jack Bernard, a retired business executive and a two-term county commissioner and former county Republican Party chairman in Jasper County, Bill Lightle, a retired Fayette teacher and Democratic candidate for state Senate, and John Palmer, a Cobb County band director and the head of TRAGIC, a teacher advocacy group with more than 24,000 members. Two of the authors have taught in public schools.

By Jack Bernard, Bill Lightle and John Palmer

Politicians love to talk about education, and every year it seems as if some politician has found the magic bullet for fixing all of education’s woes. New standards, new methods and an ever-increasing barrage of tests seemingly designed to suck the life out of students and teachers alike have all failed to produce the promised results.

For decades, politicians and consultants have promised they can fix education, but very few have actually asked educators what the actual problems were.

We all must reject the phrase “failing schools” based on comparing standardized tests scores and low graduation rates in low-income schools to schools in rich zip codes. Many of these failing schools have a disproportionate number of minority students who have been disadvantaged going back hundreds of years.

It is like having a track meet where half of the participants get to start at the halfway mark, while the rest are way back at the beginning of the track. As grandma would say, it’s like comparing apples and oranges.

Coming from both high- and low- poverty areas, we’ve seen hardworking teachers across the socio-economic spectrum give their best every day. Georgia teachers love and care for their students, regardless of zip code, but kids in high poverty schools often begin at a different starting line. Students from more comfortable homes produce much higher test scores than those from difficult home environments.

Teaching doesn’t occur in a bubble. Families blessed with financial and health-care security send children to school who are often more prepared to learn versus children living in poverty. The non-educational needs of middle-class children are usually met at home; this is often untrue for low-income kids.

If we want better results in Georgia’s schools, we must focus on the well-being of all Georgia families, rich and poor. We badly need legislation to help Georgia families meet their responsibilities to one another. That means expanding health care coverage and creating thriving wages for Georgians.

Georgia’s poverty rate continues to be much higher than the national average: about one-fifth of Georgia’s public-school children live below the federal poverty guidelines. One way to change this situation is to establish a reasonable minimum wage for all Georgia workers.

The low federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour hasn’t been adjusted in nearly a decade. Many of our major cities across the country have significantly increased the minimum wage, and Georgia must follow suit to remain competitive.

The percentage of Georgia families and citizens without health insurance (most working) remains one of the highest in the nation, primarily due to our Legislature’s failure to fully enact the Affordable Care Act via Medicaid expansion, paid for 90 percent by the feds. Why send our tax dollars to New York, California and other states?

A Georgia State University study of Medicaid expansion in Georgia shows expansion would provide health care for about 600,000 Georgians, while creating more than 70,000 new private sector jobs. Even so, that expansion would still leave more than a million Georgians without health care. Medicare for all, with 2 percent overhead versus an average of 12 percent in the private sector, is the least expensive and best way to have all our citizens covered.

Beyond the focus on families to help students, we must begin to include teachers in the discussions on how to improve our education system. This means inviting teachers to the table and giving them a greater say on issues such as curriculum, standards, pay, standardized testing, teacher evaluation, health care benefits, teacher retirement, and other aspects of their profession.

We must acknowledge students cannot be defined by a bubble test score, and neither can teachers. Georgia needs a much more equitable way of evaluating our teachers that gives teachers credit for the many ways they motivate students to help them achieve their potential.

Our state legislators must allow teachers significant input into guidelines for their own profession. We need to bring all stakeholders … teachers, parents, and students… into the discussion and stop listening to every self-proclaimed educational “expert” who sets up a private think tank to “fix” education.

Teachers are not the cause of the educational problems in Georgia. They can and should be a big part of the solution.

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