Education Takes Center Stage in Georgia Elections

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MCT

Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal greets supporters at his election night party at the Georgian Terrace Hotel in Atlanta on Tuesday, May 20, 2014. Deal easily crushed his opponents in GOP gubernatorial primary. He is now taking on Jason Carter in the general election. (Kent D. Johnson/Atlanta Journal-Constitution/MCT)

Doyle Wang, Staff Writer

On November 4th, 2014, Georgia voters will head to the polls to decide on the control of most of Georgia’s statewide offices as well as control of the state legislature. The elections will include incumbent Republican Governor Nathan Deal’s race for reelection, a hotly contested US Senate race to replace retiring Georgia Sen. Saxby Chambliss, and a race for the office of state superintendent that will be vacated by John Barge.

One of the pinnacle issues that have been raised is the state of education here in Georgia. Since Gov. Deal took office in January 2011, he enacted major reforms to the HOPE Scholarship program by tightening the requirements for students to earn the scholarship as well as some cuts to funding the program as well. The reforms have attracted criticism from Deal’s political opponents, including his Democratic challenger, state senator Jason Carter.

Also, the issue of common core has been raised in the midst of this year’s midterm elections. In the race for state school superintendent, the Republican nominee Richard Woods has come out strongly against common core and has ran on enacting even more scrutinizing reviews on the standards that have already been adopted by the state of Georgia.

As I asked various teachers, administrators, and students from Parkview about the conditions of education in Georgia, I received myriad reasons on how they felt about the state of education based on their positions on common core and funding for education and the HOPE Scholarship.

For the most part, much of the Parkview faculty that I talked with approved of the current state of education in Georgia.

“I think for students in Gwinnett County, if they’re willing to work hard enough to get their education, they are being served well,” said Parkview principal Mr. Smith.

However, there were some who still believed that education in Georgia is still not on the right track. The most common criticism of education was that it was severely underfunded under the administration of Gov. Deal. With Jason Carter attacking the incumbent governor on the issue of education, many of Deal’s critics have claimed that his changes to HOPE Scholarship have rendered education funding less sufficient.

Carter, the grandson of former US President Jimmy Carter, and other liberal Democrats in Georgia have also asserted that Deal’s changes have made it more difficult for students to access HOPE, thus rendering the cost of college tuition difficult to afford for students in lower income families who work part-time and cannot achieve the higher GPA needed to earn HOPE. However, that assertion is inaccurate since there are many students including my fellow classmates that have managed to exceed the minimum GPA needed to acquire HOPE funds.

Though the governor’s changes to HOPE did cut funding for the program, it was a necessary tough decision that saved the program from the brink of bankruptcy.

“I understand it even though I don’t like it,” said Language Arts teacher Allen Murphy, who also elaborated that HOPE would have ran out of money and gone bankrupt had Deal not made the scholarship’s acquisition requirements stricter to keep it afloat.

Opponents nevertheless claim that the effects of Deal’s reforms still worsened education in Georgia and believe that a better way of keeping HOPE available for future generations would be revising its requirements based on the income-levels of parents.

“I think changing the requirements based on parental income would help low-income students more,” says Parkview Latin teacher Rachel Ash, who is also concerned that education is underfunded.

That is a solution that has been proposed by Jason Carter, who plans to restore the income cap on the program to ensure that the scholarship benefits students from low-income households. In contrast to what he claims, Carter’s solution will only put unnecessary restrictions on the accessibility of HOPE since students from higher-income households who successfully achieve the required GPA will not be able to receive the HOPE Scholarship that they deserve. A student’s eligibility for HOPE should not be determined by his or her parents’ income; it should be determined by his or her achievement of the scholarship’s requirements like it has for most of its history.

Furthermore, there is little credibility behind Carter’s claim that education in Georgia is severely underfunded since education comprises 54% of the state budget. Compared to other states in country, Georgia ranks no.14 in education funding as of January 2014, according to the AJC. Carter himself even voted for Gov. Deal’s first three budgets that he claims underfunded education, but then voted for Deal’s last budget when he ran for governor. Thus, he cannot have it both ways by asserting that Deal has not invested enough in education.

Of course, there have been other concerns about education in Georgia besides funding. Another one surrounds the issue of the common core standards that have been implemented here in Georgia.

The most prominent concern I heard about it was the takeover of education by the federal government, which would force every student in the nation to follow a set of uniform standards of what they should learn, how they should learn, and how to study. Opponents of the standards, including the Georgia Republican US Senate candidate David Perdue, have advocated for local control of education.

“No classroom is alike, so no state can be alike either,” said Parkview teacher Mr. Brad Holland, who along with assistant Principal Mr. John Mangano, also worry about the increased federalization of education by common core.

Supporters on the other hand, claim that common core is not as federally invasive as opponents think. “The problem is that it has been politicized,” said Mr. Murphy. “Common core is only a set of broad goals set by Washington on getting students through high school into college.”

Though it may not seem bad to teachers like Mr. Murphy, other teachers have their own reasons to be concerned with common core. Among them is Language Arts teacher Susan Cavenaugh, who has expressed her worries of how common core tests students. “Not all students are good-test takers,” stated Mrs. Cavenaugh, who has also noticed that common core forces students to test in a uniform way that most cannot conform to.

Another major concern over common core is its connections to corporate welfare and crony capitalism. “It is really the big business component of common core that concerns me,” said Mrs. Ash.

There are good reasons behind Mrs. Ash’s concerns. Textbook and testing corporations have been rewarded lucrative taxpayer-funded subsidies from the government for manufacturing common core textbooks that contain questions that are nearly impossible for students and parents to decipher.

While common core proponents like Michelle Nunn, the Georgia Democrat running for US Senate, say that it still preserves local flexibility over classes, teachers like Mrs. Ash believe that it does just the opposite.

In spite of the fiasco that common core has created in Georgia, education has stayed on the right track thanks to steps taken by the governor to keep it sustainable. Deal’s changes to the HOPE Scholarship may not sound good but were absolutely necessary in ensuring the availability of the program for future high school graduates, including me. Though I do respect the judgment of those who back common core, I still think it hurts quality of education due to its connections to big government and big business altogether.

Though Gov. Deal has previously supported common core, he has ordered the undoing of the English portion of common core due to the frustrations many parents and teachers have with the curriculum. In fact, Deal has even considered formulating an education plan aimed at revitalizing Georgia’s failing schools, a plan reminiscent Gov. Bobby Jindal’s reform plan in Louisiana that has proven to increase test scores in struggling inner city schools in New Orleans. Contrarily, Jason Carter’s plan only ruins the balanced budget achieved under Gov. Deal and repeats the failures of President Obama’s unaffordable “Race to the Top” program.

Primaries

Ga. Democratic state senator Jason Carter speaks to supporters on the night of his May 20th primary election. 

While Carter’s spending plan for education will only hurt our state financially, Deal has kept education well funded while keeping our state budget balanced at the same time and has even established the Zell Miller Scholarship to preserve full tuition coverage for higher achieving students. Whereas Jason Carter’s alternative wastes money that we do not have, Gov. Deal’s record on education and future education plans have done more to help Georgia students, and we can ensure that they continue to help if we elect him to a second term this fall.