A Wilcox County school bus travels down a dirt road next to rows of cotton in  the south Georgia region. Are donors giving enough time and money to rural and small-town schools throughout Georgia? 
Photo: Johnny Crawford/AJC
Photo: Johnny Crawford/AJC

Opinion:  Education donors ought to give attention, money to rural Georgia

Philanthropic funders spend $453 per person in metro Atlanta, compared to $329 per person in rest of state

Kelly Robson, an associate partner with Bellwether Education Partners, takes on a topic today that will resonate with educators outside the metro region: Donors ought to give more time and money to schools in medium-sized Georgia cities, small towns and rural areas.
Philanthropic funders spend $453 per person in metro Atlanta, compared to $329 per person in other parts of the state, according to Robson.
By Kelly Robson
It’s time education philanthropy looks outside of major cities.
Of the 1.8 million students enrolled in Georgia public school districts, just 52,400 of them – less than 3 percent – are enrolled in Atlanta Public Schools. Even throwing in the school systems surrounding APS – Clayton, Cobb, Douglas, DeKalb, and Fulton Counties – accounts for just 439,306 students, or 25%t of all students statewide.
That means that three out of every four public K-12 students in Georgia goes to school outside of metro Atlanta.
And yet policymakers and philanthropists involved in education continue to disproportionately focus on Atlanta. Philanthropic funders spend $453 per person in metro Atlanta, compared to $329 per person in other parts of the state. Students and schools throughout Georgia’s mid-sized cities, small towns, and rural communities aren’t getting the attention they need and deserve.
To be sure, investment in APS is important: Just 19% of eighth graders performed at or above proficient on the National Assessment of Educational Progress math test in 2017. That’s a dismal number made even more dismal by the stark racial discrepancies: 10% of black students and 20% of Hispanic students scored proficient or higher. Just nine percent of students eligible for the national school lunch program did so.
But the racial and economic achievement gaps that exist in APS exist statewide, too: Just 28% of eighth graders performed at or above proficient on the NAEP math assessment in 2017 — and just 13% of black students and 19% of Hispanic students did so.
Fifteen percent of students eligible for the national school lunch program scored proficient or higher. This means that black, Hispanic, and low-income students statewide barely outperform children in APS. And white and non-low-income students outside Atlanta actually do worse than those in APS.
The focus of philanthropic funding in major urban areas isn’t unique to Georgia. In fact, nationwide, just 7% of private philanthropic investments have a rural focus, and just a fraction of that goes to education initiatives.
But any movement serious about improving education for low-income, rural, and minority students has to look outside of cities — especially in the South, where a majority of students live outside of city centers.
Nationally, 19% of people live in non-urban communities, and across the South the rates are much higher. In Georgia, 2.4 million people, or one-quarter of the population, lives in rural communities. There’s a whole lot of state, and a whole lot of children, outside of cities.
A report we released today aims to spark deeper understanding of the challenges and opportunities in education in Georgia and across the South. At an event at the Carter Center today, co-hosted by the Walton Family Foundation, we began a nuanced conversation about education reform in the American South.
It’s time that philanthropy in general, and education grantmaking more specifically, pay attention to the needs of the young people living in communities outside of major cities. Only then will we see real — and equitable — progress in our nation’s schools.

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About the Author

Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.
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