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Legislative candidates, educators want no more money taken from schools
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Hear Chris Strickland, a Flowery Branch Democrat, discuss his views on education.

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Hear Rep. James Mills, R-Chestnut Mountain, discuss his views on education.
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Economic plans and military tactics have taken the reins in the presidential race, leaving the future of education in the hands of candidates jockeying for seats in Georgia’s General Assembly.

Education represents more than 55 percent, or nearly $8.2 billion, of Georgia’s fiscal year 2009 budget, according to the Governor’s Office of Planning and Budget. In contrast, education represented only 2.3 percent of the federal government’s $3 trillion budget for fiscal year 2008, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

That translates to the federal government contributing only 9 percent to elementary and secondary education and another 3 percent to higher education in the United States.

Aside from dreams of the next president dramatically improving what they call the federal government’s fundamentally flawed No Child Left Behind Act, local educators are hoping the Nov. 4 election will put more state senators and representatives in the capitol building who have a heart for local school districts and higher education.

Will Schofield, superintendent of Hall County schools, said it’s clear the state legislature needs to take action to reverse the trend of local property owners shouldering more of the burden to fund schools. He said he would also like for local representatives to help cut some of the red tape that binds the hands of superintendents and school boards when using state funds to develop budgets.

"We need some sort of comprehensive reform in the way we fund education in Georgia," Schofield said.

He said at the very least, if the General Assembly cannot reform outdated Quality Basic Education funding formulas, then the state could meet local governments halfway in funding state mandates.

Tim Callahan, spokesman for the Professional Association of Georgia Educators, said he’d like to see politicians provide more funding for local school districts, which have limped through the past six years enduring state budget cuts that total $1.6 billion.

Callahan said in this time of economic uncertainty, he hopes winning politicians will heed the cries of teachers, principals and superintendents around the state.

"I think they can stop cutting," he said. "Education has already had its fair share of cuts."

While the two candidates for the state House District 25 seat disagree on issues such as private school vouchers, they can agree on one thing — Georgia can’t afford to cut any more education funds.

Chris Strickland, a Flowery Branch Democrat, is running against incumbent state Rep. James Mills, R-Chestnut Mountain, for the seat, which represents Southern Hall County.

"I think education is the very last place we should cut, and that should be a last resort," Mills said.

Mills and Strickland said the state should make good on its promise to maintain teachers’ retirement funds, including a 3 percent per year cost of living adjustment that could end up on the chopping block.

While both candidates said the state’s Quality Basic Education funding formula, which was established in the 1980s, is outdated and needs reform, Strickland said he would make funding education his No. 1 priority.

Strickland, a chorus teacher at Creekland Middle School in Gwinnett County and a former Hall County schoolteacher, said he would like to restore state Quality Basic Education funding to at least what it was six years ago.

"I would scrape the gold off the capitol before I would cut education," Strickland said.

The issue of using public school funds to finance vouchers to private schools is one that divides the candidates.

Mills said he favors allowing all parents to use public vouchers that would allow them to send their children to private schools. Strickland said he’s against taking money from public schools until the state funds them more fully.

"I don’t want to give up on something until we try to make it work," Strickland said of public schools.

Mills said he wants to give parents more choice in their child’s education.

"I’m for anything we can do that will provide competition," Mills said of vouchers.

State Sen. Lee Hawkins, R-Gainesville, is running unopposed for his seat that represents Hall County and a portion of Jackson County.

Hawkins, a graduate of Gainesville High School, said he voted against private school vouchers and maintains that stance.

He also said he supports the idea of financial flexibility Gov. Sonny Perdue plans to present to the General Assembly in January. That plan temporarily could loosen the constraints placed on school systems’ use of state funds by allowing schools to determine on a local level where state funds could best be used within the school system.

Merrianne Dyer, superintendent of Gainesville schools, said if Perdue’s plan passes, it would provide some financial relief for school districts scrambling to meet state mandates such as class sizes.

She said the Gainesville school system is not required to meet some state mandates because it is a charter school system. Dyer said she’s glad to see the state recognizing that recently imposed state cuts — 2 percent for K-12 school districts and 6 percent for higher education institutions — are taking a toll on schools.

David Potter, president of North Georgia College & State University, said legislative candidates shouldn’t forget about higher education.

He said technical colleges and universities need more scholarship funding from the state to make higher education a realistic endeavor for "worthy but needy" students who don’t qualify for the HOPE scholarship and can’t afford college. During poor economic times, he said it’s common for colleges and universities to experience an influx of students seeking additional education in an effort to obtain jobs.

"We’re all suffering from the loss of revenue the state is encountering," Potter said of schools, colleges and universities. "We really are an investment for economic development in the future."

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