Opinion: Achievement gaps threaten Georgia’s future

The genesis for this piece by Steve Dolinger, president of the Georgia Partnership for Excellence in Education, was an AJC story spotlighting the correlation between NAEP scores (student outcomes) and median family incomes (money) for students in Atlanta.

The Georgia Partnership for Excellence in Education is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization based in Atlanta that has worked to improve education in the state for more than 25 years.

A former superintendent of Fulton County Schools, Dolinger cites the importance of Georgia staying the course with its financial investments in public education, especially in light of growing income disparities among students in Atlanta.

By Steve Dolinger

Gov. Nathan Deal and Georgia lawmakers recently agreed to use a state budget surplus to increase our state’s investment in education by about $186 million for the 2018-2019 fiscal year. It’s the first time since 2002 that the state has fully funded the Quality Basic Education formula.

This important move shows a commitment to schools across political party lines in Georgia, but this step alone isn’t sufficient for the state to achieve its goals for education. In the long term, Georgians need to decide what they expect from schools -- and what kind of investments are required.

Veteran AJC reporter Ty Tagami recently showed the link between resources and students' opportunities for success. He cited an analysis by Georgia State University doctoral candidate and researcher Jarod Apperson, who teaches at Spelman College in Atlanta.

The analysis showed close correlation between Atlanta students' family income and recent scores on the NAEP exam, also known as the Nation's Report Card. The gap in median family income between white and black students is an astounding $144,000, with white families earning about $167,100 compared to $23,800 for black families.

While Georgia and other states in the region have made major advances in education in recent decades, “achievement gaps” between more affluent students and their historically disadvantaged classmates are closing at a slow pace, which threatens our state’s future and economic prospects.

There is reason to be optimistic, however, as two major reports and new poll results from the Georgia Partnership for Excellence in Education, as a member of a coalition of education organizations across the South, show that voters recognize the urgent need to improve schools at a faster rate.

"Now is the time for states to develop a long-term vision for improving education so that many more children can succeed in school and life," as stated in our new report, "Accelerating the Pace: The Future of Education in the American South." (The report and complete poll results are online here.)

"Accelerating the Pace" calls for Southern states to improve education by making our region the nation's best place to teach, supplying more teachers and principals with the talent and preparation to help students succeed. The report also calls for new types of academic—and nonacademic—support for today's students. Many students need more help with family and emotional health issues that impact learning, issues we spotlight in a feature on Marietta High School, whose student-support practices are spreading to other schools in our state.

The Georgia Partnership's second report focuses on Georgia specifically and is an in-depth policy roadmap for improving education. Titled "EdQuest Georgia: Charting Educational Reform," the report praises Gov. Deal's statewide Education Reform Commission recommendation for a new weighted-student school funding system in Georgia. Such as system would add funding to districts specifically for students with special needs—those with disabilities, living in poverty, gifted and talented, and others.

Like many states, Georgia already has an “equalization formula” to supplement funding for small or poorer school systems with limited ability to support schools through local taxes. But this law hasn’t been updated since 1985.

That’s why our EdQuest report urges the state to determine the actual dollar amount required to provide all of Georgia’s children with the education they need —and then help to make up the difference.

If there's any doubt about public support for such steps to improve education, consider the results of our new Education Poll of the South that show most voters want better educational opportunities for all children in their states, no matter students' background or zip code.

Specifically, the poll shows that 74 percent of voters in the South (73 percent in Georgia) recognize differences in the quality of education across their states—and 85 percent support state action to address these differences (79 percent of Georgia voters agreed).

Another 84 percent support their “state improving public schools by addressing differences in funding across all public schools” (78 percent of Georgia voters agreed).

These findings were based on the responses of 2,200 registered voters across 12 states, including Georgia, roughly matching the political affiliation, gender, income levels, and racial/ethnic backgrounds of registered voters in each state. Interestingly, 79 and 77 percent of the region’s Republican men and women, respectively, agreed their state’s school funding system needs changes.

The Partnership is gratified to see a building sense of urgency among state leaders, business owners, educators, and advocacy groups for improving education. As we look toward this fall’s statewide elections, all candidates need to recognize that education is far too important an issue to become part of today’s rancorous political divide.

This is about our children’s lives and our communities. Smart investments targeted at specific needs will pay off for everyone.