A roadmap to Georgia’s Golden Age

As the launch pad for Coca-Cola, the world’s most recognizable brand; the home of CNN, the company that invented cable news; and the birthplace of Home Depot, the largest home improvement chain on the planet, Georgia boasts some remarkable examples of homegrown business success.

The state’s exploits are not simply relegated to the private sector.

Georgia lawmakers dreamt up the groundbreaking HOPE Scholarship and directed $8 billion in lottery receipts to send 1.6 million students to local colleges and universities. Local leaders founded Hands on Atlanta, which grew into Points of Light, the largest volunteer group in the nation, alongside other global change-makers like Habitat for Humanity and CARE.

Yet, Georgians are not content to limit our accomplishments to within America’s borders.

Our capital city built and continues to expand the world’s busiest airport. That helped Atlanta beat out Athens, Greece for the bicentennial 1996 Olympics. We recently became the fourth most-visited city in the country. Furthermore, Georgia holds the distinction as the only state in the union that has produced two Nobel Peace Prize winners.

If the headlines are to be believed, Georgia keeps finding a way to turn good into great.

While local leaders have demonstrated time and again that they know how to build on a solid foundation, questions about the future still linger. Georgia continues to lag in key indicators — including education, healthcare and income equality. There has been persistent talk of losing the claim as capital of the South to places like Dallas, Charlotte and Orlando.

Nowhere do those questions reverberate more loudly than inside Georgia’s schools.

Local leaders have recently hit the reset button on one of the most important drivers of the economy — education. A 2012 amendment established an independent commission to review charter school applications. The courts upheld Gov. Nathan Deal’s decision to replace two-thirds of the DeKalb School Board, although runoff elections next month will ultimately decide its makeup. Last year, the Atlanta Board of Education elected six new members, and a new superintendent begins work July 1.

And diverse stakeholders with divergent interests want a seat at the table.

School reform advocates like StudentsFirst and Democrats for Education Reform have descended upon the Peach State to influence politics and policy. State School Superintendent John Barge resigned his post to challenge Gov. Deal, promising to improve classrooms and the administrative offices that govern them. While Barge was unsuccessful, State Sen. Jason Carter will press the issue with similar criticisms and a more-formidable campaign.

Sometimes the best way forward begins with a thorough examination of the past.

In addition to the HOPE scholarship, Georgia led the nation in providing universal Pre-K. A generation later, a cheating scandal and skyrocketing education costs threaten to derail that progress. A recent study found that only one state has increased tuition and fees more than Georgia in the last five years. How do we keep our competitive edge without high-performing schools and affordable colleges?

Education is thus part of a larger question: Is Georgia’s Golden Age over, or just beginning?

The best thinkers and doers from around the state and across the county will tackle this question later this year at the fifth annual GeorgiaForward Forum. Through a wide-ranging debate on the ideas and industries poised to shape the next 25 years, they will discuss the enormous opportunities and immense challenges facing the state. After taking the forum to Macon, Athens, Columbus and Atlanta, we’ll be hosted by Savannah this October 6th and 7th. We hope that you will join the conversation.

For more info on GeorgiaForward and its annual Forum, visit www.georgiaforward.org.

Howard Franklin is executive director of GeorgiaForward.