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Lawmakers in Georgia and Mississippi haven't learned basic lesson: Teachers key to reform

Here is an essay by former Pelham City, Ga., Superintendent Jim Arnold about similarities in education politics in his home state of Mississippi and adopted state of Georgia.

By  Jim Arnold

My brothers and I attended public schools in Mississippi, my nephews and niece are graduates of Mississippi public schools and there are more relatives than I can count who attribute at least part of what they've achieved in life to public education in the Magnolia State.

I credit Mrs. Moore from Raines Elementary School in Jackson, Miss., with instilling an interest in learning and reading that continues to this day. I served as a public school band director for 20 years, the majority of my teaching career in Alabama and Georgia. I am now a recovering school administrator and retired in 2013 after an additional 19 years as a high school principal and school superintendent in Georgia.

I believe strongly in public education, and you can read some of my writings on a variety of educational topics here.

Since 2009, Mississippi lawmakers have underfunded public education by more than $1.5 billion dollars. Sound familiar? Since 2003, the Georgia Legislature has underfunded schools to the tune of more than $8 billion in spite of the funding levels supposedly required by the Quality Basic Education Act.  These cuts have continued on an annual basis even though Deal touts a resurgence of the state economy and tax collections.

Legislators in both states insist on attempting to legislate excellence in education without the advice of teachers. They consistently advance ideas to “fix” public education in the mistaken and misguided beliefs:

Public education is irreparably broken.

Privatization is preferable to local control of schools.

The only expertise needed to solving educational issues is that found in their own school experience.

Public education has been succeeding at a far greater rate and degree than state legislatures would have you believe. The National Center for Education Statistics reports the high school graduation rate for 2012 was 80 percent nationwide. Yes, there are disparities in graduation rates in places, and, no, not everyone is achieving at high levels.

The idiocy of college and career ready expectations for all students flies in the face of human nature and ignores the obstacles of life -- poverty, illness, family, addiction and too many others to name -- that confront students of all ages at every level. If any other profession achieved anywhere close to 80 percent of anything, there'd be dancing in the streets and proclamations honoring those who helped achieve that goal.

Instead, teachers have suffered under funding, privatization, higher expectations and blame for not reaching the remaining 20 percent. Of course, there are improvements that can be made and schools that don't come close to an 80 percent graduation level, but taken as a whole the notion that success can only mean 100 percent of anything is foolish and counter-intuitive.

Gov. Nathan Deal has proposed a plan to allow the state to “take over” schools that he determines are failing, place them under the control of an administrator that he appoints who reports directly to him, set up at untold cost a new and separate school district run by him and his cronies and guaranteed to remove the local control of those schools from the communities that surround them.

I hope Georgians see through the governor’s ploy when asked next year to vote to change the Georgia constitution so he can set up his own little school district without the interference of those pesky teachers and voters.

Teachers and public education are not the problem, they are the solution.  Sooner or later, even legislators must see it’s not about race, it’s about poverty; it’s not about a test score, it’s about student achievement; it’s not about a standardized curriculum, it’s about good teaching; it’s not about the business model, it’s about personalization; it’s not about competition, it’s about cooperation.


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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.