DMI Blog

Elizabeth Hartline Green

Y’all leave Georgia schools alone, ya hear?

I am a product of the education system of the South. Though I probably lost my street cred as a Southerner when I came up North to attend the “atheistic” Columbia University (my grandpa made me promise to still love Jesus in New York City), I attended Georgia schools for 17 years of my life. I was relatively well prepared for my move to New York, but two things have caught me off guard: 1.) people are constantly surprised that I don’t have a Southern accent and 2.) I’ve heard Southern schools consistently denigrated by both my professors and the general public.

Now I’m not going to defend the racial history of Southern schools, or even discuss it—that post is for another day. What I want to address is one question: do schools in Georgia deserve their terrible reputation? To tell you the truth, I don't think that they do.

It’s true, Georgia schools consistently under-perform compared to their counterparts across the country. Georgia has the lowest overall four-year graduation rate (at 54%), the lowest white graduation rate (61%), and the lowest graduation rate for Latinos (at 32%), but—get this—has a higher African-American graduation rate than both Wisconsin and Minnesota, states that are often lauded for their educational practices. Yes, the rate is inexcusably low (at 44%), but the white graduation rate in Wisconsin (92%) is over double the black graduation rate (40%), and Minnesota has a similar discrepancy (87% for whites and 43% for blacks). And here’s the other thing: almost half of Georgia’s students qualify as economically disadvantaged (that is, they receive free or reduced price lunches, which means their families make less than 185% of the poverty level), while 38% of students nationwide qualify, and about 29% qualify in Wisconsin and Minnesota. To put that in perspective, if Georgia had the same rate of economically disadvantaged students as Wisconsin, 273,404 fewer kids would be poor.

But this post isn’t about blasting Wisconsin or Minnesota, it’s about trying to pull Georgia’s reputation out of the muck just a little. Georgia schools perform below the national average on the National Assessment of Educational Progress—but only an average of 4.5 points lower. They are ranked near the bottom in SAT scores, but have a participation rate of 75%, while nationally the participation rate is 49%.

And remember—there are a lot of economically disadvantaged kids in Georgia. A good portion of the state is still rural, where there is little income. Due to the way we finance schools, the majority of school money comes from local property taxes. It’s an easy calculation—since half of the children in Georgia schools are poor, then many of the schools will not be fiscally strong. Additionally, rural areas have a very hard time attracting teachers. Of all the girls (and the one guy) I graduated with at the University of Georgia’s teacher training program, all are now teaching are in the suburbs or their hometowns--none are in the rural areas that desperately need them.

That's partly because teachers are very high in demand in the suburbs, but not because of a failing economy--the non-rural areas have an entirely different host of problems. Atlanta has grown at an astounding rate in the past few decades. In 1970, the population of the Atlanta metropolitan area was 1,761,575. Last year it was 4,983,946. To put that in perspective, if the New York metropolitan area had grown that much since 1970, its population would be 48,304,899 (it is currently 18,818,536). While this growth has brought wealth, infrastructure has been created from farmland at a phenomenal pace, and at a phenomenal cost. Money that would go into hiring new teachers, or lowering class sizes, or improving curriculum, must go into capital development[pdf].

I’m not saying that all of Georgia’s education problems should not be addressed more fervently by state and local politicians—I think they should be. But give the state some credit—they created the country’s first universal preschool program, provide free in-state tuition to public colleges and universities, and spend a relatively high amount of money per-pupil, with an OPAI level (indicating the amount spent to ensure that an adequate education is provided) of 95.5%. Georgia has serious structural issues that it has to deal with before results can be seen, and the criticism of the state's education system both completely ignores the gains that it's made and fails to praise the initiatives of state legislators.

So, essentially, I believe that, in the words of Ice Cube, many people must checkity-check themselves before they wreckity-wreck themselves. Blaming the South for being backwards without also criticizing the country as a whole fails to address the larger problems our society faces. For example, Georgia's been getting a lot of flak lately for the Troy Davis execution case--and rightly so, because the case is appalling. But chalking it up to "the South is screwed up," as many commenters on various blogs have done, ignores the deeper problems that our nation as a whole face with the justice system. Bringing it closer to home, my maternal grandparents (in South Carolina) may have fought with me when I married a black man, but my paternal grandparents (in Ohio) still haven't even acknowledged the wedding. Stereotyping Southerners as a bunch of ignorant KKK members masks the deeper realities that our country is facing, furthers deep-rooted fractures, and discourages the development of national solutions to national problems.

Elizabeth Hartline Green: Author Bio | Other Posts
Posted at 7:13 AM, Jul 25, 2007 in Education
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