By any measure, Cobb County is a prosperous place. You can see that in its well-appointed neighborhoods, its thriving business parks and malls, and also in its beautiful churches.
You see it in the data as well. Cobb County’s median household income of $65,432 is some 24 percent above the national average, according to the Census Bureau. Cobb home values are also well above the national average. And while 28 percent of Americans age 25 or older have bachelor degrees or higher, in Cobb County that figure is 44 percent. Cobb is one of the places in this country where the American dream is still a reality.
And yet this week, the Cobb County School Board closed an $86 million deficit by cutting 182 teaching positions from its local schools and requiring five days of unpaid furlough for teachers and other employees, among other steps. Because you see, as prosperous as Cobb County might appear to be on the outside, it is simply too poor to keep those teachers in the classroom and on the payroll.
I just don’t believe that.
The more honest truth is that for all of our talk about understanding the importance of education in a globally competitive economy, we are finding other, supposedly more important ways to spend our money than in our school systems. Look around you — we have the resources; we simply don’t choose to use them that way.
I don’t mean to pick on Cobb County. Local officials there are doing what school districts throughout the state have been doing for several years now. And like school districts in the rest of the state, Cobb’s budget problems can be attributed in part to sharp cutbacks in state school funding.
As a report in February by the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute noted:
“The Quality Basic Education (QBE) program, the primary mechanism for distributing state money to local school districts, is underfunded by $1 billion in the governor’s budget for the 2014 fiscal year…. For districts and schools across the state, there will be little relief from larger class sizes, shorter school calendars and teacher furlough days.”
Some of the funding shortfall can certainly be attributed to the Great Recession, but as GBPI’s inflation-adjusted data document, state spending per student actually started its long decline 10 years ago, well before the economy began to falter. That decline occurred not because we as a state were too poor; it began because even in good times, our leaders made a conscious decision that we could find better uses for that money than the schools that were educating our children.
It is absolutely true that more money does not necessarily equate to better-educated children. It is also true that school bureaucracies, like any other bureaucracy, can become top heavy and inefficient. But look again at Cobb County: On top of substantial cuts to administrative positions, that district is reducing the number of teaching positions — the frontline educational delivery system — by more than 180.
Because of its prosperity, Cobb has weathered state cutbacks and a weak economy better than many other districts in the state. That’s particularly true in rural Georgia, where educational opportunity was already fragile. Smart kids in those areas are getting an inferior start in life merely because of the place of their birth.
These cuts also come as we claim to be demanding more of our students and teachers — better test results, higher graduation rates, etc. — so we can attract higher-paying jobs to the state. But we have chosen not to back up those demands with resources, and poverty is a sorry excuse for doing that.