The  sign at David C. Barrow Elementary School in Athens displays what is becoming a national motto.  An education advocate says that also should be the motto for coming out of this pandemic more committed to educational attainment in Georgia. 
Photo: Curtis Compton/AJC
Photo: Curtis Compton/AJC

Opinion: Why we can’t afford to ‘get back to normal’ after pandemic

In a guest column, Steve Dolinger, president of the Georgia Partnership for Excellence in Education and a former superintendent of the Fulton County Schools, urges the state and its leadership to view this unprecedented time as an unprecedented opportunity to make a better educated Georgia a priority and a mission.

By Steve Dolinger

In January of this year, the Georgia Partnership for Excellence in Education, proudly released the 16th edition of our Top Ten Issues to Watch report. As is our aim every year, we highlighted the most pressing education issues facing Georgia, such as our shifting demographics, early learning, assessments and accountability, non-academic barriers to learning, as well as post-secondary access and completion. 

Unlike previous reports, however, we framed this year’s issues in a more high-stakes way, looking closely at what Georgia’s leaders must do today, in 2020, to ensure the state’s economic competitiveness in the future. Given that only 40% of Georgia’s adult population has at least an associate degree, for instance, and more than 60% of students enrolled in the public K-12 system come from low-income families, we’ve known for some time that our state is facing troubling trends in its economic development and workforce pipeline.

Recent research – pre-COVID 19 - from the Southern Regional Education Board (SREB) brought the magnitude of this issue into sharp relief. They found that the impact of automation and the changing economy, coupled with the current education level of Georgia’s population, could put the state in danger of seeing 1.5 million of its workers and their children be unemployable by 2030. That is 1.5 million people whose skills are incompatible with the needs of the job market. 

Keep in mind that the numbers, though staggering in their own right, were reported before the COVID-19 pandemic shuttered schools and upended the economy. We can only guess, of course, the extent to which the pandemic will impact those numbers, but it is clear that many of the aforementioned challenges have become exponentially harder to address, especially for those living and leading in under-resourced communities.

Some in the workforce have transitioned to working remotely and are able to shelter in place; however, many have lost their jobs or had to close their businesses. Children and families are facing food and housing insecurities and other life stresses.

Steve Dolinger

Similarly, while some school districts have been able to pivot relatively quickly and produce online curriculum, offer virtual classes, and deploy buses to distribute lunches into the community or serve as mobile hot spots, many, especially rural districts or those without a lot of resources and support have not. They simply did not have access to the resources they needed. Even in the midst of such glaring inequities, how we should tackle the problems isn’t always so clear.

The Georgia Partnership recognizes we are in unprecedented times, but we also recognize that an unprecedented opportunity is before us. Knowing that even before the current crisis, Georgia was facing potentially 1.5 million unemployable people, we can’t afford to “get back to normal.” 

Instead, we must go forward boldly with an unwavering conviction that leaders from the capitol to the classroom can create a “new normal,” one that strives to level the playing field and provide fair and equitable opportunity for all Georgians. That means that policymakers must continue working to ensure all students are educated to a high standard and that all schools have the resources to do so, targeting more resources to students who come to school with greater disadvantages. 

Leaders must also commit to supporting the expansion of Georgia’s technological infrastructure, especially in rural communities, so that digital learning opportunities are more readily available to all public-school students, not just those who can afford it. Lastly, community and regional leaders must assess their local assets and build partnerships that support students inside the classroom and beyond.

There is no doubt that the educational attainment of a state’s population — its workforce — is critical to supporting its economic development goals. Leaders across all education agencies, early learning through post-secondary, and workforce development entities must devise a coordinated plan to combat decades of poverty, undereducation, and dependence on low-skilled jobs.

We must blaze new paths of educational accessibility and economic opportunity for all students and adults. People in the future will be affected long-term by the choices we make today and are counting on us to do the right thing. So, we must lead with a focus on the present while stewarding our assets with a mind toward the future.

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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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