If there’s one thing politicians like better than free food, golf junkets and seeing their name in bright lights, it is pointing fingers.
In American politics, blame is the coin of the realm. Whether the issue is war, the economy, bad weather or the price of gasoline, it’s always the other side’s fault.
Thus, it’s not surprising last week’s debate in state politics followed that script along party lines.
Gov. Nathan Deal announced in his State of the State address that he would increase school spending by $547 million in his proposed 2015 budget, with more than 82 percent of the state’s new tax revenue going to education. The move was both welcome and expected. As state revenues climb back toward levels reached prior to the recession, there is consensus on the need to channel it back into schools, which took a fiscal hit in recent years.
Yet even a harsh truth will always find an ambitious pol seeking to put a face on it. In this case, state Sen. Jason Carter, in the Democratic response to Deal’s speech, criticized the governor for his stingy school spending. He cast at Deal’s feet the fact that class sizes have risen, school calendars have been cut and teachers have been lost.
Did we mention Carter is running against Deal in this year’s governor’s race? Nothing stokes a nascent campaign like a little fresh blame. He should be well-acquainted with the strategy; nobody earned a bigger share of it while in office, rightly or wrongly, than his grandpa Jimmy, the former president.
Carter called the state’s schools budget “a shell game” and said education should be the top budget priority, though it has been all along, accounting for more than half of money the state takes in and spends.
It’s true state funding for education has been trimmed in recent years, and schools have suffered because of it. It’s also true that because of cuts at the state level, cities and counties had to make up the difference by raising property taxes for schools and other needs. Nobody is happy about that, but it was largely unavoidable.
It’s hard to imagine this was some dastardly scheme cooked up by the governor and Republican legislative leaders to spite Georgia’s children. There are a number of reasons Georgia schools have spun their wheels, but faced with the negative effects of a lethargic economy, state leaders had only two choices within their grasp: Cut spending or raise taxes.
Georgia’s fiscal challenges were shared by the world. After the recession struck in late 2008, financial markets and banks failed, jobs were lost and the economy took a half-gainer into the slop bucket. When the private sector tanked, so did public tax revenues, leaving governments everywhere scrambling to stay out of the red.
In the midst of such a budget crisis, Georgia didn’t have options available in Washington: Spend money it doesn’t have or print more of it. Legally, the state can do neither.
Because the state constitution requires a balanced budget, the revenue slump forced hard choices. Budgets were cut drastically with all departments affected, some more than others. Had schools been spared the ax completely, it would have meant digging deeper into funding for other vital needs such as public safety, health care (Medicaid funding remains a struggle) and child protection services, which are now under heavy fire and still badly understaffed.
This budget shuffle wasn’t a “shell game.” It was dealing with reality and making difficult decisions. The real scam would be to pretend cutting a bigger slice for schools out of a shrinking pie wouldn’t have negative effects elsewhere.
The other move Republican leaders avoided was to raise state taxes. They did jack up rates through a few “sin” taxes and fees to make up revenue shortfalls. But increasing income and sales taxes across the board to bump spending would have a detrimental effect on the economic recovery and deliver a backhand across the jaw to the middle class Carter claims Deal has abandoned.
Yes, schools and middle-class families everywhere have suffered from a bad economy, yet to blame that on a single governor in a single state is bogus. If that finger can be pointed anywhere, it should be toward Washington and a federal government led by a Democratic president.
Other factors beyond anyone’s control have dogged Georgia schools. In impoverished rural areas abandoned by businesses and residents, local tax revenue is too weak to fund districts’ needs. And many systems, as in Gainesville and Hall County, have a high percentage of English-language learners that drag down overall school performance. It is an obstacle teachers bravely struggle to overcome, and one less common in states in the Northeast and Midwest with highly rated schools.
It also would help if Georgia could keep the same school superintendent for more than one term, for consistency’s sake. In recent years, most either wound up in jail or hankering for a different job. Let’s hope whoever earns that office will be on the same page with the governor in the next four years.
No one denies education is the key to growing our state’s future. Those middle class families Carter frets for want good schools for their kids so they can fill the jobs of the future. But those jobs need to be there, and government can only do so much to stimulate their growth. For now, the plan to boost school spending, return to a 180-day calendar and retain good educators is a strong start. Extra funding for HOPE college scholarships and technical college grants are promised as well.
Politics being what they are, it’s folly to think blame won’t be passed around like a hot potato in an election year. Ideally, though, such accusations should be based on facts rather than rhetoric. Blame plays well in a campaign, but it doesn’t solve problems.