Opinion: Smart investment in schools benefits us all

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 FY19. It’s the first time since 2002 the state has fully funded the Quality Basic Education formula. According to the latest Census Bureau data on nationwide student expenditures, Georgia ranked 38th in per-pupil spending.

This move shows a commitment to schools across political party lines in Georgia, but alone it isn’t sufficient to achieve our goals for education. Long term, Georgians must decide what they expect from schools — and what kind of investments are required.

Veteran AJC reporter Ty Tagami recently published an article highlighting 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 Southern states 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. This threatens our state’s future and economic prospects.

There is reason to be optimistic, however, as new research from the Georgia Partnership for Excellence in Education, as a member of a coalition of education organizations across the South, shows that voters recognize the urgent need to improve schools immediately.

“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 report 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. It also calls for new types of academic — and nonacademic — support for students, especially those needing help with family and emotional health issues that impact learning.

If there’s any doubt about public support for such steps to improve education, the results of our new Education Poll of the South 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).

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. Not just more funding, but smart investments targeted at specific needs will pay off for everyone.

Steve Dolinger is the president of the Georgia Partnership for Excellence in Education, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization based in Atlanta that has worked to improve education in the state for more than 25 years. He previously was the superintendent of the Fulton County Schools.