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Governor's final State of the State: Saving HOPE and spreading it, too

In this final year in office, Gov. Nathan Deal delivered his last State of the State address today. Education was a big part of it.

Here are excerpts in which he spoke about education:

We seek to make Georgia a leader in all industries, however, which is why we have invested so much into our K-12 education system, because we know that the students of today are the workforce of tomorrow. As the man in our parable remarked, “When I was a small child, I could eat fruit because those who came before me had planted trees. Am I not required to do the same for the next generation?”

For however long we are granted the privilege of serving our fellow Georgians, we must strive to do the same. And so I would like to highlight the orchards of opportunity we have planted together that have the most far-reaching impact on our state – those that affect Georgia’s youngest citizens directly.

We have increased education spending by $3.6 billion dollars over the last seven years, which includes my final budget proposal, making the total education expenditure during my time as governor roughly $14 billion. No other administration in Georgia history has planted so many trees of knowledge.

One such tree we planted this past year is the Sandra Dunagan Deal Center for Early Language and Literacy at the Georgia College and State University in Milledgeville. It is a training and research center that focuses on children from birth to third grade – perhaps the most critical period of any child’s development and education. It is during this window of opportunity that we can best lay down a strong, enduring foundation for all other aspects of a student’s academic career. If we fail to reach Georgia’s youngest minds during that time, if we fail to get them reading on grade level by the end of third grade, they are much more likely to fall behind, both in the classroom and the life that awaits them beyond.

So I want to take this opportunity to recognize and thank one of the greatest standard-bearers of this issue of childhood literacy that Georgia has ever been blessed to have. She is a loving mother of four and a grandmother of six who spent much of her life in the classroom as one of our state’s many dedicated educators. When our parents grew older and endured poor health, she invited them into our home, where they lived for many years. She looked after them and provided for every one of their needs. Her kindness is genuine and powerful. To those in her company, it is infectious; and it has touched countless hearts over the years, especially mine over the past 51 years that I have been blessed to call her my wife.

The English author Godfrey Winn wrote, “No man succeeds without a good woman beside him. Wife or mother. If it is both, he is twice blessed indeed.” I am one of those individuals who has been twice blessed indeed to have such a magnificent partner, friend, wife, and mother stand beside me all these years. What joys I have been privileged to have in this life and this profession are thanks in no small part to her generosity and effort.

Her passion has always been and continues to be improving the lives of children. When she became the First Lady of our state, her efforts to improve child welfare and educational opportunities did not stop, they only grew and took on new forms. I can tell you that she has visited all 159 counties, some of them multiple times, and all 181 school districts. In total, she has made 834 school visits, to date, and has no plans of slowing down.

But the real importance of those numbers can only be understood if you have the pleasure of seeing her in the classroom. She doesn’t just visit a school for a handshake with the principal and a photo. She reads to the children.  She listens to them intently.  She hugs them the way only mothers and grandmothers seem to know how to do, so that they know they are loved.

In fact, those children usually send her letters thanking her for visiting.  Those little tokens of appreciation are often written in crayon, and we receive whole bundles of them regularly.  In one such package was a letter from a student in an early grade who wrote to Sandra and said, “thank you for visiting my school and thank you for running the State of Georgia.”

My wife made certain that I saw that letter. She said she wanted me to know of that student’s appreciation for her real job.  Will you join me in recognizing this woman who is a First Lady in every respect of the word?

When I took office in 2011, there were many dilemmas facing this state.  And so before we even began to plant new orchards of opportunity in the fertile ground of Georgia, we went about the business of saving those trees which were in danger of being felled by the economic downturn.  One of the most critical was our HOPE Scholarship and Grant programs, which were on the cusp of bankruptcy. This legacy of a man who impacted Georgia perhaps more than anyone else in the latter portion of the 20th century – Governor Zell Miller – was one of the most generous merit-based scholarship programs in the country when it was created. It continues to be so today because of the reforms we put into place seven years ago.

Because we did the difficult but necessary work of saving that tree of opportunity, many more students will sit under its shade in the years to come and benefit from its fruit of higher education, whether in the form of a certificate, associate’s degree, or a bachelor’s degree.

Our public colleges and universities have been, and will continue to be, a source of pride. In fact, according to the 2018 U.S. News & World Report public school rankings, Georgia is currently one of only three states to have more than one higher education institution in the top 20.

Our state will depend on the continued production of quality graduates from these types of institutions if we want to preserve our educated, trained and sustained workforce.  In order for us to achieve that goal, we must have workers who possess the requisite knowledge and skills for the jobs of today and the future. Some of those jobs will require a college degree. Others will require certifications and more specialized degrees from a technical school. We need both our University and Technical College Systems to remain competitive, and I am happy to report that both have adjusted their degree and training programs to meet the needs of our state’s diverse economic climate.

With us today is the new Commissioner of our Technical College System, Matt Arthur, who also helped to lead the University of Georgia Bulldogs to their 1980 national championship as an offensive lineman. Matt, in recognition of your leadership in the arena and the field of education, will you please stand and be recognized?

While we continue to support and expand the opportunities within our university system, I have also been pleased that in recent years, we have added certificate and degree programs within our Technical College System that provide a solution for the problems we faced coming out of the Great Recession. At the height of our unemployment rate, I asked the employers of our state: “can you find proper candidates here in Georgia for the open positions in your company?” Their answer was often a very loud “no.”

So we created a program, known as the HOPE Career Grant, which covers 100 percent of tuition for technical school students who enroll in one of Georgia’s strategic industry, high-demand fields. Although this program is only a few years old, it is already bearing exceptional fruit. In fact, of those students who take advantage of this resource, 99.2 percent find employment upon completion of their training and studies.

That is why I was proud to grow that forest of potential by adding five new categories to that incredibly successful program. As of 10 days ago, we now have 17 specific fields that allow our employers to answer “yes” when I ask them whether they can find qualified candidates for open jobs.

Throughout our state, at all 22 TCSG campuses, we have pockets of excellence in terms of economic development. In order to better leverage those tools, I am happy to announce that we will create a new Deputy Commissioner position within our Technical College System. This individual will develop and maintain a unified process with our 22 campuses, the University System, and the Department of Economic Development in terms of how those campuses interact with companies here in Georgia. This will create an organized and seamless effort to assist existing businesses that can benefit from TCSG’s training in an ever-changing and evolving marketplace.

I would like to introduce you to the woman who will fill that new Deputy Commissioner role, who happens to be with us in the gallery today. Laura Gammage, would you please stand and allow us to recognize you for the important job you are undertaking?

To further aid those coming into our workforce or those seeking new opportunities, we will also be moving our state’s Division of Workforce Development to the Technical College System. In addition, we will be relocating the state’s customized recruitment office to TCSG, further consolidating these separate workforce development components into a more cohesive and workable system.

Our Technical College system is a resource whose benefits to the entire state will only increase as the number of students increases. In light of the fact that 30 percent of Georgia’s high school students choose not to pursue further education or training opportunities once they graduate, we initiated a broad marketing campaign over this past year that showcases all that a technical college has to offer. It is already producing great results, reaching young adults throughout this state who would not have previously considered a career opportunity at one of our technical colleges.

To build on that success, my proposed budget includes an additional $1 million for this campaign so that we can strategically market the colleges throughout Georgia.

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About the Author

Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.