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It's been a mixed year for Georgia schools, but the real challenges lie ahead.
Somehow amid furloughs, cutbacks and budgetary headaches, the state's educators managed to persevere. Statewide CRCT test scores showed improvement after a year in which many school systems were forced to cut staff and teachers. As a result, more schools made Adequate Yearly Progress designation under the No Child Left Behind standards. That's a testament to the great job our teachers do with what they have to work with.
But as tax revenues continue to fall, greater financial strain looms for systems in Northeast Georgia and elsewhere. Hall County already has been forced to close one school, Jones Elementary, and prospects for growth are dim.
The problem is simple: Tax revenues are down, meaning the state can't provide as much to local districts suffering from their own dwindling finances.
And schools are expensive. To provide a first-rate education takes well-trained, well-paid professionals and the latest technology and infrastructure, along with transportation, cafeterias and extracurricular activities that cannot always be offset by fees or booster clubs.
Now we face a gubernatorial election in which each candidate promises to be "the education governor" and turn around our state's troubled history of providing top-flight schools. It's a promise we've heard before, so pardon us for being skeptical.
Providing for our schools also touches our state's other vital issue: the economy. Only a well-educated work force can fill the jobs we need to grow and prosper. A highly regarded educational system serves as an incentive for businesses and residents to move to Georgia.
But how do we provide what our schools need while still balancing the state's budget and providing for other key services?
If the answers were easy, they already would be in place. So candidates should go beyond simple promises and offer specifics. It's easy to promise that, under their watch, schools will be fully funded and teachers paid more. But a candidate who doesn't reveal how to pay those bills is only telling half the story.
Some local districts have raised taxes to meet their current fiscal needs. A governor who plans to do so needs to tell us now, before the election, not after taking office.
Federal stimulus funds helped many districts stay out of the red this year, but that money is not likely to return. While the situation is dire elsewhere, Gainesville and Hall County have stayed fairly solvent. But another 3 to 5 percent cut is likely during this fiscal year, with perhaps more later.
And though classroom performance hasn't yet suffered from the financial crisis, that day looms. As more students on the edge miss key instructional time due to furloughs and larger class sizes, test scores are likely to fall and more schools will miss AYP. Georgia's already-low graduation rate won't climb without the resources to push progressing students as they head through middle and high schools.
The same budget woes plague higher education, with the state's colleges, universities and technical schools forced to raise tuition and fees or face similar cutbacks in the quality of instruction. The new governor must work to protect the HOPE Scholarship program by ensuring that those precious funds go exclusively to qualified Georgia students who pursue worthwhile degree programs.
There's no secret to the formula for classroom success: Hire the most-qualified teachers and help them boost their own training and skills. Cut class sizes for more individualized instruction. Find effective ways to target special-needs children. Emphasize high standards in key subjects across the board for students, teachers and administrators, and keep pushing the bar higher. And use standardized tests as a measuring stick but not as the only source of classroom instruction.
Many Republicans support school choice as a solution, saying parents should be able to use the tax dollars spent on their children's education to pay private or public school tuitions. It's a polarizing subject, one side feeling choice would spur competition and better schools, the other concerned that students abandoning public schools will only make them worse.
While it is hard to imagine vouchers helping public systems right now, compromise ideas such as tax credits are worth pursuing to help parents who aren't willing to wait another generation for struggling local schools to turn the corner.
The new governor needs to bring educators and administrators to the table to address instructional and fiscal concerns. He or she needs to push the state and districts to sift out wasteful spending where it still exists and encourage systems that have found new ideas to share them statewide.
The same goes for the candidates for school superintendent. The new school chief and governor need to be on the same page when it comes to setting education policy, which hasn't always been the case.
Remember, money spent on education is not being thrown down a hole. If any type of government spending truly can be called an investment, it is money spent teaching our children. Not only does that give them the foundation for successful and productive lives, it keeps Georgia supplied with a well-educated, taxpaying labor force for the state's industries.
We can't skimp on our schools without paying a terrible price. The candidates for governor agree on this. So who among them can keep our schools moving forward during the economic recovery? The one who succeeds in doing so would earn that long-sought title as "the education governor."