An Argument for Education Reform in Georgia

By Phil Kent

Twenty years ago Albert Shanker, then-president of the American Federation of Teachers, startled an audience of educators by declaring that a primary distinction between foreign schools and American public schools is our emphasis on bureaucracy. “We spend half our money on bureaucracy, whereas the other schools in the world don’t spend more than 20 percent.” Sad to say, in spite of some public and private school success stories involving dedicated teachers and students, his words still ring true— and the bureaucracy has grown larger.

To his credit, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan has been encouraging the growth of individual charter schools and charter systems that don’t have the onerous bureaucratic restrictions of public schools. Upon assuming his post, Duncan said “states that don’t have charter school laws, or put artificial caps on the growth of charter schools, will jeopardize their (grant) application” for the Obama administration’s $4.3 billion “Race to the Top” initiative to improve k-12 schooling. But the unions and education bureaucrats are fighting back, and the administration is unfortunately retreating from those requirements.

Georgia’s educational bureaucracy is just as stifling as the federal one, and in recent years there has been little public education reform nor any significant boost in SAT scores. The good news was the state’s rewrite of its curriculum, making it more rigorous. Even so, an all-time high number of college freshman are required to take remedial courses and two-thirds of HOPE scholarship recipients lose their scholarships in their first year of college due to low grades. No wonder one candidate for state school superintendent has adopted the slogan “We Can Do Better.” Even incumbent School Superintendent Kathy Cox, running for re-election, can’t argue with that.

What about all too many of today’s teachers? Gary Walker, director of educator ethics of the Georgia Professional Standards Commission, speaks frankly: “Now educator salaries – because of the efforts of legislators and governors— are competitive across the nation. So we have some that are more interested in the salaries than in the service. And we’ve got some out there that just don’t like children.” Walker also notes societal changes. “We’ve got teachers here, particularly in the metro (Atlanta) area, that will stay out a good part of the night, come back in, then the next morning they run late, forget to take a shower or brush their teeth, and we get reports that they came in smelling like alcohol.” Incredible.

Good educators that toil in the vineyards, though, want to be measured by the academic gains of their students, not their overall test scores. Indeed, a principal told me that she often spends more time making parents fill out required paperwork than engaging them in the learning process.

One of the greatest failures is that very little character education is being taught in elementary schools, even though such courses are required by state law. There’s a particular need in Title I schools where over 50 percent of the student body is below the poverty line. Title I monies could be spent on such programs, yet they have gone unspent and are just rolled over year after school year. Georgia public schools are striving to teach reading and writing, but most neglect to teach the principles of character— especially respecting other students, parents and people in authority positions. Teaching the basics of “right” and “wrong” to youngsters make for a better classroom learning environment, but there is little interest in that from Georgia’s education bureaucracy.

“We Can Do Better.” That mission, with accompanying reform recommendations, ought to be adopted by every candidate for governor and school superintendent in 2010 when it comes to public education.