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Opinion: If Georgia doesn't improve its schools, military could take its bases and billions elsewhere

State Rep. Dave Belton, R-Buckhead, is a retired major in the United States Air Force. He’s now an international pilot for Delta Air Lines. Belton served on the Morgan County school board for eight years and has a long interest in education and youth issues, leading the effort for  “Caleb’s Law," which bans texting while driving.

He chairs the Military Affairs Committee in the House, which has been looking at ways to keep military bases in the state. A key factor, he says, is improving our schools.

By Dave Belton

Georgia has the fifth largest military population in America with an economic impact of nearly $20 billion a year. Providing 150,000 jobs and indirectly employing almost a third of a million Georgians, the Department of Defense is Georgia’s largest single employer.

With so much at stake, Georgia cannot afford to ignore our military, especially as rival states budget millions of dollars every year to protect their installations.

The economic risks are very real. Just this year - without any warnings - the Army cut more than 3,000 soldiers from Fort Benning and plan to cut even more in 2018, a decision that will cost Columbus $1.8 billion every year.

Just last week, a bill was filed in Washington to start a new round of base closures, a move that both Sen. John McCain and the president publicly approve of.

The Pentagon has been begging to close bases for years now, something Congress has steadfastly refused. But the mood is different now. President Donald Trump has vowed to rebuild the military. But like all big businessmen (Big Banks, Big Pharma, Big Airlines), he wants to save money by reducing infrastructure to offset his big “ask” for even more money.

Base closures aren’t a theory anymore –  they are a reality. My House committee has studied the problem for almost a year now. Senior military officials told us the greatest liability Georgia is its K-12 education.

Compared to other military-rich states, we rank at the bottom in terms of K-12 education and spend very little (37th out of 50 states) per child. The Pentagon has noticed, commenting, "If communities do not offer soldiers' children a consistently high-quality education, they risk the economic challenges that result from losing support of a major employer."

If Georgia wants to keep our bases, it should consider investing more in K-12.

Fixing K-12 education is a Herculean task, as it occupies 38 percent of the state budget. Three counties that surround the Marine Corps Logistics Base in Albany -- realizing they could easily lose the $1.5 billion a year the base provides them -- wisely agreed to let the children who live on the base go to any school within those three counties. That agreement could be replicated around the state, creating military-friendly flagship schools that could meet those children's unique needs.

It is a documented fact that 32 percent of military children score as “high-risk” for behavioral and mental health concerns, three times the national average. I was a military child who saw my father go away to Vietnam. Having a parent gone for a year at a time would disrupt any family. Add the ever-present threat that the deployed parent may perish at any's a dilemma that would challenge the stoutest of hearts.

Military children move every two years, creating even more problems as they replace new friends in new environments over and over again. They also move from state to state, meaning they find themselves way ahead or behind every time they move.

And it's a sad truth that many soldiers bring post traumatic stress disorder home to their families. It’s no wonder the military sees K-12 education as their top issue.

We show our appreciation for the military in many ways, applauding them at football games and ceremonies and parades. But if we really cared about these brave men and women -- who suffer and die for us -- we would do the very best we can for their patiently waiting children. The money we risk if we fail to act -- $20 billion -- is a colossal deal, but the biggest risk is not preparing the next generation. That cost is immeasurable.

Georgia needs to do better.


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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.