Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Only those who hate schools would vouch for vouchers
by John Sugg
Georgia Online News Service

Thank you, Sen. Eric Johnson. The Georgia Assembly was on the verge of not having any major irrelevancy to distract us from the crises brought on by Gold Dome mismanagement. Gays? Guns? Abortion? Damn little meat left to pick on those sacred cows. But just in the nick of time, Sen. Johnson arrived with a definitely-not-needed bill sure to fire up the state's emotions.

The issue is education, something we're all fretting about. Johnson's remedy – in the sense that sticking your hand in a blazing inferno will remedy your concern about a mosquito bite on one of your fingers – is vouchers.

First, Johnson is one of the brighter Republicans at the Capitol. I'm sure he genuinely believes in the conservative agenda he pushes and, unlike the half-baked shenanigans disguised as legislation proposed by his colleagues, Johnson generally has thought through what he is backing.

That said, let's think about what's really behind vouchers. At the heart of the matter is class and, since this is Georgia, class often equals race. We have an abundance of lousy schools in the state because in many counties whites fled to private schools rather than endure integration, and politicians felt no need to bolster public schools that served mostly blacks. That was years ago, but the scars on public education remain.

In the perfect world envisioned by those who long for the bygone days of plantations, quality education would be reserved for the children of the elite. The rest would be taught to punch the picture keys on McDonald's cash registers. And if the masses don't like it, why, we're happy to keep up the prison-building boom for their children.

Key to Johnson's plan is to take the state portion of education funding – about $5,000 per kid – and allow parents to spend that money at a school of their choice. OK, sounds good.

But here's some missing information. Johnson defends his proposal by saying Georgia is "near the bottom" in school performance. That's true. But is that sad state because there is a lack of "choice"? Well, no. Under Gov. Sonny Perdue, the state has slashed billions from education spending. (To be precise, Perdue has argued that he has increased spending – but that doesn't factor in the burgeoning growth in schools. Compute the growth, and the "billions slashed" is accurate. This year's budget envisions even more staggering cuts, roughly $300 million.)

Local school districts have had to struggle to make up hundreds of millions of dollars in lost state money – and then, of course, those jokesters in the Legislature pillory local school boards for raising property taxes.

There are comparisons that are relevant. In North Carolina, for example, enlightened leaders of both parties saw the need to up the ante for education decades ago. They realized that the next big thing was technology and bio-technology, and they determined to make their children competitive in the economy of tomorrow. That state hasn't been perfect, but it has made progress – and that's one reason tech industries flock to the Research Triangle in North Carolina and shun Georgia.

How would Johnson's Senate Bill 90 fix our educational flat tire? It wouldn't. If anything, it would ensure lower skills among many children by using the back door of vouchers to disinvest in education.

There are some other real problems to consider about the possible outcome of Johnson's scheming. For example, I don't criticize people's beliefs – until they enter the realm of public policy. Georgia, often epitomizing all that is backwards about the South, has some very strange beliefs. A couple of years ago, I was investigating some of the white nationalist groups in the South, and the trail of one skinhead leader took me to a church K-6 school in South Georgia. The church was part of an awful perversion of Christianity called Christian Identity, which believes Jews are the offspring of Satan and non-whites are sub-human "mud people." I checked and found out the church school met the minimum standards – and under Johnson's bill, the "Identity" families would be happy to grab the vouchers.

Slightly more mainstream is another loopy sect called Christian Reconstruction, and it's the muscle behind people such as Alabama's Ten Commandments judge, Roy Moore, and Sadie Fields, ex-leader of Georgia's Christian Coalition. Reconstruction believes in a brutal theocracy where women are subservient, gays are stoned, unionizing is a capital crime, slavery is OK, the South was right – and, this is important for education, the world was created 5,000 years ago. Reconstruction also isn't very Christian – a few years ago, I heard one of its leaders, Gary DeMar of Powder Springs, tell a flock (that included Fields and Moore) not to pay too much attention to the "red words" in the Bible (Jesus' words). Instead, DeMar urged, build an Old Testament society and forget about the love and peace stuff in the New Testament. Reconstruction is one of the biggest providers of "textbooks" for home-schooling, and there are a lot of kids growing up thinking Adam frolicked with dinosaurs. Wouldn't it be wonderful if the theocrats could use tax money to support their brand of education?

One of the guiding principles of public education is to bring the best of our civilization into the lives of children. Under Johnson's bill, we'd see a gold rush of ersatz educators opening schools that taught the most outlandish offshoots of religion. We'd be using tax dollars to support religious education, and the more extreme the religion, the more appealing vouchers are (with the exception of Catholic schools, whose tradition of excellence transcends religion).

And if it's not religious superstition that vouchers would enable, there are other fairytales out there just waiting to be taught, thank you, Sen. Johnson. Everyday on the radio you can hear Neil Boortz rail against "government schools." Aside from the fact that this broadcasting genius is himself a product of "government schools" (and flunked out of the public university he attended, Texas A&M), Boortz is a mouthpiece for those who think they can use education for class warfare. Undermine public education and the wealthy can horde more of their money, send their kids to private schools and electrify the walls around their palaces.

There's absolutely no argument that public education is in crisis. Likewise, part of the Republican argument is true: Money isn't always the solution. But a major reason we have the crisis is money – the corrosive, long-term fiscal war against public education. Add to that the unfunded mandates, the loopy and expensive experiments, some of the demands of teachers' unions – and you have the formula for failure.

Rather than further savaging schools, as Johnson's bill undoubtedly would do, truly visionary state leaders need to consider real education reform. Begin with pre-K. It's no secret (except, apparently, to legislative poobahs and Gov. Perdue) that if you don't arm kids at a very young age with literacy, they're doomed to failure later on. After that, there is no more important work of state government than to fully fund education and end the strip-mining of schools – and to demand educational excellence as the product.

John F. Sugg is executive editor of the Georgia Online News Service.   [full bio]


Editor's note: Hello, Georgia! Chilly today, right? And this is the Deep South. Speaking of the South, one item that never loses its appeal among readers is the Civil War. True, it's been over with for 144 years, but many families, whether Blue or Gray, still honor their ancestors who fought the war. Georgia Online News Service writer Bill Hendrick writes today about a new book that profiles many of the soldiers from Georgia who fought in the conflict. It's not exactly breaking news, but it's fascinating.

On the legislative front lines – in a war that's often uncivil – Maggie Lee reports on consumer issues in the first of two articles. Today's story focuses on Georgia Power's pay-now-get-electricity-later plan. And today's Soapbox is by Georgia Supreme Court Chief Justice Leah Ward Sears. She warns: "Even in good economic times, the administration of justice is difficult to fulfill given the sheer volume and complexity of problems Georgians bring to their courthouses. Because of the effects of the nation's bad economy, people will need access to justice now more than ever."

Finally, I was intrigued by Sen. Eric Johnson's bill to make school vouchers available to just about everyone in Georgia. My take? At the heart of Johnson's bill is the belief that public education can't be fixed. I disagree, and argue that we should stop savaging school spending and focus on proven remedies, such as expanding pre-K.

One of our most popular features is proving to be Soapbox, and its editor is David Beasley, who for many years was the op-ed editor at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. If you have an opinion piece on a subject of importance to Georgians, or a suggestion of a topic we should explore, send it to Beasley at david.beasley@georgiaonlinenews.org.

As always, send your comments and suggestions to john.sugg@georgiaonlinenews.org or call 800-891-3459. The Georgia Online News Service is being offered free for a limited time. We don't believe quality journalism has to disappear because of the economy or the dismal state of many newspapers. Your opinion on how we're doing – and what other content we could provide – is very important to us.


Today's GONSO

New book chronicles Civil War from viewpoint of ordinary soldiers

by Bill Hendrick
Unlike most of the tens of thousands of Confederate soldiers who died in the Civil War, William G. Delony finally returned to his roots and is buried in a marked grave in Athens' historic Oconee Hills Cemetery, just off the campus of the University of Georgia.

Delony, who graduated with honors from UGA in 1846, is profiled in a new book, "Faces of the Confederacy," authored by Ronald S. Coddington, who earned his degree from UGA in 1985.

Coddington, now art director for USA Today, didn't set out to profile Delony, who died in a Union hospital after the Battle of Gettysburg and was buried in Washington, D.C., until reinterred in Oconee Hills.

Indeed, Delony is just one of 77 Confederate soldiers, including many from Georgia, who're pictured and profiled in Coddington's new and meticulously researched book.

Full Story

Only those who hate schools would vouch for vouchers

by John Sugg
Thank you, Sen. Eric Johnson. The Georgia Assembly was on the verge of not having any major irrelevancy to distract us from the crises brought on by Gold Dome mismanagement. Gays? Guns? Abortion? Damn little meat left to pick on those sacred cows. But just in the nick of time, Sen. Johnson arrived with a definitely-not-needed bill sure to fire up the state's emotions.

The issue is education, something we're all fretting about. Johnson's remedy – in the sense that sticking your hand in a blazing inferno will remedy your concern about a mosquito bite on one of your fingers – is vouchers.

Full Story

Georgia Power's pay-in-advance funding tops consumer issues at Legislature

by Maggie Lee
The threat of bigger power bills during a recession is shocking Georgia's most prominent consumer watchdog, yet the plan to finance new nuclear power plants is just the first consumer item on a legislative agenda that may put sub-prime mortgage brokers in the dog house and muzzle some tax preparers.

"The consumers are going to be footing the bill for prepaying the financing costs plus getting the kick in the gut of paying the construction costs after the thing comes online," according to Allison Wall, executive director of consumer advocacy group Georgia Watch, one of the main opponents of the Georgia Nuclear Energy Financing Act.

Full Story

SOAPBOX

Georgia's chief justice: Because of bad economy, 'people will need access to justice now more than ever'

From a speech by Judge Leah Ward Sears: The judicial system's budget is less than 1 percent of the overall state budget, but we play a huge role in protecting the safety and security of Georgia citizens. Unfortunately, like others in state government, we have had to slash our budget to the bone. We have reduced personnel and cut our expenditures. Before this economic downturn, this state's appellate courts were well on our way toward unveiling an electronic filing system to make all our courts more accessible to people throughout the state. Such a system is a minimum requirement in this 21st century. Unfortunately, we have had to put that on indefinite hold.
Full Story

Tomorrow's Budget
There's little conversation between Georgia and Obama administration
by Tom Baxter
Lenders and lawyers among those targeted by consumer legislation
by Maggie Lee
Brits are wrong by not serving squirrel with most important meal of the day
by Larry Wilkerson
Sonny Perdue's message to Georgia Historical Society: Drop dead
by Todd Groce

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