Georgia law requires the legislature to approve a balanced budget, which I believe is very wise. In these difficult economic times, I do not envy the task they have before them. But, just as we can’t saddle the next generation with our debt, we also can’t take away the opportunity for our kids to receive an education that prepares them for their 21st century world.
As state superintendent of schools, I am hopeful that the legislature will prioritize this budget to fund one of our primary constitutional obligations — educating Georgia’s K-12 students. We are fortunate to have some of the best teachers and school leaders in the nation (Georgia has had a National Principal of the Year for three years in a row). They have been laser-focused on their mission of improving student achievement, and I am proud to see so much progress being made.
But, a lack of resources and support will take its toll on student achievement. Funding for effective programs like graduation coaches has played a big role in helping us improve our graduation rate from 72.3 percent to 78.9 percent in just two years of their existence. The progress we have made could come to a screeching halt if we do not continue to give our schools the money they need for these types of worthy programs. Just this year, the budgets as submitted would mean a net loss of over $710 million in basic school funding. Most school districts are trying desperately to properly manage their scarce resources. But, some can’t even afford to hire a substitute when a teacher is sick.
School district budgets are cut to the bone. They need flexibility from the state so they can prioritize the needs of their students and make decisions that are in the best interest of their district. The legislature has been quick to offer flexibility in previous years, and I am optimistic that we can work together this year for our schools. I have proposed legislation to the General Assembly giving local districts several means of flexibility, including relaxing expenditure controls and class size mandates.
As a former classroom teacher, I fully understand the stress caused by larger class sizes. It is NOT an ideal situation! However, I believe this short-term solution will help districts better manage expenditures so they don’t have to resort to layoffs of paraprofessionals or art, music and physical education teachers. During these tough economic times, we must find creative solutions to help stave off draconian measures like more furloughs or reducing the salary schedule for all teachers.
Providing for our students now is an investment in our state’s current and future success. If we want to continue making progress, then we must be willing to invest in Georgia’s greatest resource — our children.
Kathy Cox is Georgia’s superintendent of schools.
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