Dear Governor Nathan Deal,
I know, I know. You're under the Gold Dome wheelin' and dealin' (pun intended) over some of our most vulnerable citizens including the elderly, the sick, and the undereducated. You're busy doing very important work! I just wanted to drop you a line about some things that, as a life-long citizen of Georgia, bothers me. I found it ironic that you spent the weekend lining your belly with pork at the annual "wild hog supper" just a day before beginning conversations about how laws and bloated bills will impact the wellbeing of our state. I'm sure there's a joke in there somewhere but for the sake of time, I'll narrow the focus of this letter so you can get back to work.
Being that 2014 is an election year for you, sound bites and news clips of promises for educators have been circulating and it seems that you've made a promise to increase pay for teachers. This is always a "hurrah" for any politician because, who wants to deny teachers a decent living wage? (We could simply start but just eliminating the furloughs so that an increase in payroll won't put further strain on the budget, no?) But what many citizens of Georgia do not know is the extremities the teachers, students, and school systems of Georgia have faced recently.
So, let's walk our friends through it, shall we?
Since 2003, the state of Georgia has underfunded education every year by 1 billion dollars. Yes, for over the last decade or so, school districts have received less money from the State to educate students while the number of children who are entering the school systems have increased. To add insult to injury, the number of qualified teachers has decreased drastically, in some counties by nearly ten percent.
Some systems are using their reserve funds to pay the salaries of teachers and support staff. Other counties have to consider filing for bankruptcy to continue educating their students. Take Gwinnett County for example: since 2003, Gwinnett has lost $738,868,163 in funding -- and counting. Cobb, Dekalb, Fulton, Clayton, Henry, Atlanta City, and Douglas Counties don't fall far behind. For my Georgia friends reading this, here's how it goes: the State gives each county a certain amount of dollars to run their school system -- that's from payroll, to buses, to food services, to buying books and other resources for students. The County uses SPLOTS dollars and tax revenues (millage rate) to make up the rest.
Since 2003, the State has taken back a little bit of the money, here and there, a million or two initially. As of last year, some counties experienced take-backsies like never before reaching in excesses of $15 million dollars. As a result, some districts have to take out loans or totally deplete their reserves to make payroll. As we all know, tax revenues from homes and other county-based income has been on a steady decline because of the job and housing market. This leaves an even bigger gaping hole for school systems to compensate for.
School districts are just a part (a big part, I might add) of an even bigger system to make Georgia a state in which people do business, film movies, and raise their families. This makes Georgia responsible for how they appropriate funds to the agencies that make this state a great place to live. That sounds too much like right though, don't it?
The aforementioned numbers, Governor Deal, don't require graduate level education to figure out -- it's so easy in fact, that a Georgia Pre-K student could do it! When you increase the number of students + a decrease in available teachers to educate them / reduction in funding = troubled waters in the state of Georgia.
Here's my ethical dilemma:
We have a tendency to use our political prowess to undermine the wellbeing of our children by reducing their most critical needs to a tool for legislative leverage because we do not believe in the intrinsic value of education. We use children (and those who educate them) as a political pawn to galvanize support only to fail them year after year.
Why should this matter to the community at large?
When we use diplomacy to undercut the vitality of a child's education, we remove the possibility for them to engage as a member of a sustained community. As local neighborhoods begin to feel the brunt of undereducated children, the strain on that community increases as localized resources become scarce. Insufficient reserves, in any given, locale, creates a breakdown in a neighborhood's structure that spreads like wildfire. Overcompensation for disenfranchised citizens leaks into the social fabric and shifts the way in which we view and interact with one another; consequently, those community members begin to place blame on each other for their newfound stressors and begin trying to navigate a tattered and beat up ship in choppy waters without a sail.
When the core members of the community grow tired of trying to navigate an inoperable ship, they give up, relinquishing their power, and retreat back to the hulls of the ship for refuge.
Where is the refuge for the educators, administrators, faculty, staff, parents and students who have weathered this 11-year journey?
This is not a letter to shame you or to highlight the misappropriation of monies or priorities (you don't need my help for that). It is intended to let your constituents know, that as we gear up for another election, we have to be informed of the things slipping by us as we go about our every day business.
In 2007, after fighting the call to the classroom for nearly three years, I decided to apply to teach English in a Metro Atlanta county. There was one school that gave me a chance to bring my life experiences and commitment to education to the classroom. As a result, I spent four years in one of the most nurturing and supportive educational settings I'd ever experienced. My English cohort worked magic with what we had, fostering some of the highest EOCT and High School Graduation Test scores in the county. Even still, teachers and administrators in that county and those across Georgia are giving everything they have to ensure that Georgia's students can contend with the ever growing academic rigor and work force. Competition is stiff for college admissions and jobs -- it is our teachers who have a joint responsibility with the community at large to prepare our kids for the journey ahead. Let's give them the tools they need to do it successfully!
One thing I've learned in life is that you can always tell where a person's heart commitments are by looking at two things: where they spend their money and how they spend their time. If this rings true, then Georgia's heart isn't with the children and educators of the State. Unequal allocation of money and an inattentiveness toward those who need it most is the most telling sign of all.
I hope that as you spend the next 40 days making decisions about the lives of Georgia citizens you consider the level of difficulty that many of us are facing. I understand: leaders have a tough job trying to discern what is the best thing for all parties involved in situations like these.
Some leaders also have difficulty putting aside their limited, minimal views and making considerations for those whose livelihoods aren't as privileged as their own.
The best leaders, however, decide to take the greatest burdens upon themselves so that those they serve may live harmoniously and sleep well at night knowing that the daily sacrifices they make are not in vain.
Change the path our state is on, Mr. Deal. Push lawmakers to make a shift in ideals and priorities so that the most vital part of our social and economic base is secure and safe!
A Georgia Native and Educator,
Alisha L. Gordon