Friends and Neighbors-
I want to highlight a quiet crisis in Georgia. It influences our ability to attract major businesses and high quality jobs to Georgia. It affects the state's incarceration level, unemployment rate, and numerous other social indicators.
The quiet crisis is our state's abysmal graduation rate, which ranks 48th nationally. I cannot think of a state issue that outweighs the importance of substantially increasing the graduation rate. It would change more lives and spur more economic development than any other single thing we could do.
The 55,000 Georgians that did not graduate from the Class of 2006 will cost the state more than $14 billion in lost wages, taxes and productivity in their lifetimes. On average, a high school dropout earns $10,000 less per year than a high school graduate. And the disparity is much higher with college graduates.
Of all the Georgia students that entered ninth grade in August, one third will not graduate in four years, perhaps ever.
That said, the Georgia graduation rate is the highest it has ever been. Ever.
More Georgia students are taking more rigorous classes and achieving higher scores on national achievement tests than five years ago, or when you and I were in school. Overall, though, it just isn't good enough for today given the demands of a global, information-based economy.
To be fair, not all students can, or would choose, to graduate. Some students, and their parents, simply do not care. These students do not attend school regularly and cannot be forced to make education a priority. Some students, like some adults, have debilitating disabilities. Furthermore, non-English speaking illegal immigrants, some transient, depress the graduation rate. And Georgia has the third highest illegal immigration growth rate.
The state graduation rate includes all of these students.
Again, it is important to remember that much has been done to assure funding is spent in the classroom where learning takes place. Class sizes are lower, particularly in the early grades; teacher pay is competitive nationally and higher than every surrounding state; and the curriculum has been updated to reflect today's needs.
Additionally, many schools, teachers and students are exceeding academic expectations throughout the state and in my House district.
But even with the hard work by educators across the state, Governor Sonny Perdue, and State School Superintendent Kathy Cox, much more remains to be done to transform Georgia public education. And it is mostly not about the money.
When compared with other states, Georgia's overall academic achievement levels lag. And most telling, in comparing Georgia schools with others that have similar student demographics, some achieve against all odds - and others do not. Unless we change the system to encourage the proliferation of schools that succeed beyond the circumstances of their students, many students will continue to dropout.
Here's an example of the stark numbers. Newton High School (in Covington) has 1083 students (out of 2892 enrolled students) in grades 9 through 12 that will not graduate on time, if ever. The school has a 64 percent graduation rate. Some of the students will take 5 or 6 years. Some may eventually obtain a GED. Many will remain high school dropouts.
To help keep the ball moving on education, here are some initiatives I am working on:
1. Provide more families with more public school options to meet the needs of their children through start-up charter schools. Charter schools are public schools that give customers a choice in selecting the school that best meets the needs of their child. Many parents want more options than their public school attendance zone or an expensive private school. Current state law hinders the opening and success of high quality, operationally-funded charter schools. I have authored House Bill to eliminate the barriers and treat all public schools fairly, not just system-sponsored schools.
2. Revise the recently-implemented changes to HOPE scholarship qualifications to reward students with extra credit for taking Honors courses. The new changes to HOPE (approved earlier in 2003) create a disincentive to students to take more rigorous courses. I cannot think of a single competitive college that does not consider course rigor, including Honors courses, in its admissions policies. Several other tweaks to HOPE are needed as well.
3. Legislate revisions to the state per-pupil funding formula for public education. Georgia needs to strike a more appropriate balance between overregulation that stifles change and protections that parents and teachers desire. Done correctly, the funding structure could spur greater achievement. That said, it is a complicated endeavor involving competing policy concerns.
The funding paradigm for schools should include incentives for higher performance, more flexibility for local decision-making, and increased consequences. Funding should be tied to students, follow them to schools, and include greater transparency.
Since last summer, I've been working with several legislators and the Governor's capable appointee, Dean Alford. Our work follows a three-year effort the Governor initiated to comprehensively evaluate what it takes to fund an excellent education. It's time to begin changing the state student funding formula 20 years after it was created.
In closing, I will continue my efforts to support Georgians at every level, and particularly teachers, who are working hard every day to raise student achievement.
Anyone who has read Thomas Friedman's, "The World is Flat," appreciates how rapidly our economy and the work force are evolving. While industries and other public services are changing to keep up, public education cannot be left behind. Let's get on with changing it!
Soon, I will send out a summary of the major tax reforms proposed for the legislative session that convenes in January. I want to provide historical perspective, highlight the issues and solicit your input.
Thank you for the privilege of serving you and Georgia in the state House. As always, I appreciate hearing your thoughts.
State Representative - District 46
(Serving northwest Fulton, including Roswell, Milton, Alpharetta and Mountain Park)