Dave Belton for
State Representative
GA District 112
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Georgia Schools

Georgia Schools on an Excellent Run


                                                                                          - published in the AJC

“Our schools aren’t as good as they used to be, and they never were,” joked Will Rogers. I wonder if he was talking about Georgia.


Most folks don’t know it, but Georgia schools are on a really impressive run. Believe it or not, Georgia is now number one in the nation in educational technology according to Education Week. "Technology is a key component to improving education and preparing our students to be successful," said State Superintendent of Schools Kathy Cox. The report highlighted Georgia’s “Virtual School” which allows computer learning of over 120 on-line courses to include foreign languages and Advanced Placement and credit recovery.


Morgan County is way ahead of this curve, placing “Smart Boards” in every class two years ago. They’ve been a huge success, creating interactive classrooms where kindergarteners electronically correct sentences and high school kids dissect virtual frogs. The new software even helps teachers create and share each other’s lesson plans.

Another news item you might have missed is that Georgia is now 15th in the nation in Advanced Placement (AP) scores, and we’re 9th in the nation of seniors who passed at least one AP exam. Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate programs allow high school students to take and pass college courses. A whopping 42% more Georgia seniors took the AP exam in 2008 than in 2003, and 38% more passed.


Even more impressive was that 22% of these Georgians were African-American, and their pass rate was 3rd best in the nation - triple their national average, and double what they were 5 years ago. And did you know that 10% of all African-Americans SAT test-takers are from Georgia? We have the highest percentage of any state of African-American test-takers (28%), and we scored well above their national average.

Georgia graduation rates? They’re higher they’ve ever been. In 2008 Georgia graduated 75% of her seniors, 14 points better than in 2004 and well above the 2007 national average of 70%. (2008 national graduation rates are not in yet - don’t ask me why.) MCHS graduation rate was even higher at 83%.

In the “roaring 20’s” the national graduation rate was a mere 20%. In the 1950’s it was 50%. Georgia is graduating more - not less - seniors than ever before.

Finally, the new Georgia Performance Standards (GPS) curriculum is ranked 4th best in the nation, and our SAT participation rate of 70% is 13th best in the nation. Compare that to the paltry 9.8% of thirty states, and you’ll see that more Georgians have higher college aspirations than most of the nation.

How did Morgan County do? Thanks to our AP and IB curriculum, we slaughtered both the state and the national average. Nearly 50% of MCHS seniors took at least one college-level course, and 21% got college credit for them. Pass rates on most of these exams - including English, Psychology, Math Studies, Math Methods, Music, Spanish, and French - were well above the national average, and we earned twice as many IB diplomas as we did three years ago.


Even more incredible is the fact that 20% of our sophomores - even freshman - are taking AP classes, and that 20% of them are getting college credit for these classes.

Parents – please – encourage your kids to take these AP and IB courses, especially if they plan on going to college. The opportunities MCHS offers are incredible. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – if your college-bound teens are not taking advantage of these AP and IB programs, they’re truly missing the boat.

So why do so many Georgians think we have crummy schools? Because talk show hosts bigger microphones than folks like Dave Belton - or Kathy Cox for that matter. Talk to just about anybody in any southern state, and they’ll give you a much more favorable opinion of Georgia schools than Georgians will.


Time to sit on our academic laurels? Of course not. It’s time to improve our already excellent public schools.

Courageous Legislators


C. S. Lewis – the author of the Chronicles of Narnia and Mere Christianity – wrote that all our laws, all our government, our military, corporations and vast economic forces, have but one ultimate purpose – enabling a mother to raise her child.


That’s why pro-voucher lawmakers sound so off-topic when criticizing public schools. Because not only do most Georgian parents have their kids in public schools, but they like the school their children go to.


It’s a favorite tactic to equate public schools with big government. Yet the talk-show rhetoric of lethargy and waste rings false when parents interact with their children’s teacher. Teachers are more qualified, more regulated, and more transparent and than ever before. More is expected of them than when you and I grew up, especially in performance. Parents admire what teachers – in the classroom, on the sports field, or in the band room - accomplish with their children, and are puzzled when talk-shows criticize them.


Education is the biggest budget item in Georgia - and it should be. Over the past few years, Georgia lawmakers from both sides of the aisle have made education a priority. Those far-sighted decisions are coming to fruition, in a way that is both measurable and real.


One of the poorest states (37th in per capita income), Georgia is 1st in the nation in educational technology and one of only three states who have college and career-ready policies. We have the 4th best Charter School laws, and a national Principal of the Year winner for three straight years.


Georgia is a leader – not a laggard – in education. The new Georgia Performance Standards (GPS) curriculum is ranked the 4th in the nation by the conservative Fordham Foundation. Finally, there’s a cohesive pathway from kindergarten to graduation that teaches kids what we want them to know, then measures if they actually know it.


That’s a huge accomplishment – and it’s a direct response to Senator Johnny Isakson’s No Child Left Behind. As controversial as that law has been, NCLB has forced schools to be more accountable than they’ve ever been before - providing transparency, improving overall scores, and narrowing the achievement gap between ethnicities.


Georgia’s graduation rate is now at an all time high at 79%, 7 points higher than two years ago and 15 points higher than 2002 (62%). The meteoric rise places Georgia ten points higher than the latest US DOE national average figure of 69%.


More impressive, the new GPS system that Superintendant Kathy Cox put in place dramatically erased the achievement gap. African Americans graduation rate rose from 65 to 74% and Hispanics from 60 to 71% in two short years.


Georgia is now 2nd in 5 year improvement in Advanced Placement tests, and 12th in seniors passing overall. We’re also 2nd in increased participation, including 17% more African Americans and 19% more Hispanics. Incredibly, 10% of all African Americans in the entire nation who take the AP test are from Georgia, and they scored 350% better than the nation.


The CRCT has recently been mired by a sensationalized scandal. But if you look past the hype you’ll find that the vast majority of schools wouldn’t dream of cheating. You’ll also see that schools all over the state are doing better every year (despite the tests getting much harder), and that achievement gaps are narrowing in every subject.


So why do people in Georgia think we have crummy schools? In word - the SAT.


The federal DOE has always been unwilling to rank public schools, so about thirty years ago a few magazines did it for them. Because at least some seniors in every state take the SAT, they decided the test would be an easiest way to grade the states.


It may be the easiest – but it’s certainly not the most accurate. Why? Because only 7% of the students in the “top 30 SAT states” actually take the test. Georgia participation rate is over 70% - a whopping 10 times more. If you compare Georgia with other 70% participation states (there are only ten – all of them located in the northeast) we’re only a few points shy of their average. And our African-Americans and Hispanics scored 10 points and 66 points higher than their national average.


Of course the budget will be difficult. Cuts will have to be made. But cut education too deep, and our hard-won gains will be lost. The promise of HOPE – still the best state-wide scholarship in the nation – will be ruined.


“Education is the cornerstone of liberty,” said the late Senator Paul Coverdell. That beloved Georgian conservative knew that a well-educated electorate is essential to a thriving democracy. He also knew that as much as Republicans want to be fiscally sound, we can’t afford to be wrong on this single-most-important issue to Georgian parents.


Georgia lawmakers should laud our teachers; praise our schools; trumpet our successes.


And they should stay their courageous course.

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