EmpowerED Georgia Kicks Off Stop Putting Georgia Schools on Shoestring Budgets

Guest Post by Matt Jones

EmpowerED Georgia Kicks Off Stop Putting Georgia Schools on Shoestring Budgets.

Since 2010, EmpowerED, a grassroots nonprofit, has focused on building and growing a grassroots movement of parents, educators, and community members to support public education in Georgia.

This week, EmpowerED launched a campaign called “Stop Putting Our Schools on Shoestring Budgets.”  The campaign is designed to be a memorable and easy way for people to get involved with the education funding issue in Georgia and to make a difference.  With simple shoestrings, EmpowerED Georgia has created a strong symbol for education funding concerns in the state to share with others, especially elected officials.

Here is Matt Jones’ speech which was given December 12 at a public meeting on school funding issues at the InfoMart, in Marietta, Georgia. Two organizations, FACE It Cobb (Funding Awareness Campaign for Education) and EmpowerED Georgia organized the meeting.

Good morning.

We have gathered here today for those who can’t be here – our students. For the over 100,000
students who attend Cobb County Schools and for the over 1.6 million students who attend
public schools across Georgia.

My name is Matt Jones. I have taught for six years in a small rural school in southeast Georgia.
Last year, I was selected as the System Teacher of the Year. In 2010, I co-founded a statewide
education advocacy group called EmpowerED Georgia with parents and fellow teachers.
What motivated us to come together was seeing the negative impacts that the funding cuts were
having on our students – our kids. In Toombs County, our Superintendent also served as our
high school principal, our copier machines were turned off, we were urged to turn off our
classroom lights at lunchtime to save on electricity, and if a teacher was out, fellow teachers had
to give up their planning to cover their classes.

Personally, my local supplement (and that of other teachers) was cut out completely and then
was restored to $0.50 per pay (sodas in the school vending machines cost $0.60). I taught high
school English Language Arts, World Geography and Engineering – all in one year. Last year, I
taught over 280 students and had only a 20 minute planning period during the school day. In my
sixth year of teaching, I barely made more than what I did when I started.

Impact of State Funding

While this might seem dire, the impact that the state funding cuts had on my students was far
worse. Toombs County has been on a 160-day school calendar for four years, meaning our
students have lost a half year of instruction.

I remember my students’ reaction when the 160-day calendar was announced. As you can
imagine, at the beginning of the year most students were excited to get more time off. The story
was different at the end of the year when standardized test scores came back. One of the
students who had cheered at the beginning of the shortened school year was now crying
in class. She came to me and said: “Mr. Jones, I think if I could have been in your class just a
few more days I could have passed my test.”

While this story does not reflect Cobb County’s situation now, it predicts what will happen if
we sit back and do nothing, if we do not speak up for our kids.  Without our action today,
Toombs County and other schools like it will only see their situation degrade further and we will
see Cobb County slowly join them.

$1 Billion Cut

This year, the state cut over $1 billion to Georgia schools and over $65 million to Cobb County
Schools. These are more than just numbers.

Elected officials all agree that students should have access to a 21st century education but the
state is not even fully funding our schools using the 1986 formula.

While many countries are lengthening their school year, over 71% of Georgia schools are
shortening their school calendars. While élite private schools are touting small class sizes, since
2009, 95% of Georgia schools have increased their class sizes. While countries with some of
the highest test scores tend to have the lowest level of poverty, 58.9% of Georgia students are
Economically Disadvantaged and 38% of Georgia school districts are cutting back on services
to help low-performing students.

Screen Shot 2013-12-13 at 5.57.45 PMIt is clear that Georgia students are not being given access to a world-class education.
Looking strictly at the numbers, it is hard to believe that this could be occurring in the state that
we hold so dear.

We hear a lot about Georgia being a place to do business but what business is going to want to
make serious investments in a state that is not adequately investing in its schools? We hear a
lot about supporting job creators but not about supporting teachers – who create all other
professions.

It is no coincidence that those most concerned about the cuts to school funding are the parents
and teachers who witness the negative effects each day.

Challenging the Critics

Though even faced with this reality, the critics continue to find a voice.

Some may argue that test scores have not eroded. These people ignore the erosion of non
tested courses — 42% of Georgia school districts report that they have eliminated or reduced
art and music courses and 62% report that they have eliminated or reduced other electives.
Critics also ignore the constant fundraising of PTAs, the use of local reserves, and the
increased burden on local taxpayers that have blunted the negative statistical effects of the
funding cuts. Teachers are going above and beyond to serve their students with less pay and
fewer resources. Long-term, this is an unsustainable path that will lead to the decline of the
teaching profession and student achievement.

Some may point to administrative bloat as a source for funding. Though school boards and
school leaders must certainly live by the example of shared sacrifice, I would invite critics to visit
my school system’s Central Office. The building dates back to the ‘60s, with window AC units
and administrators who fill multiple roles. Those who put a magnifying glass on the large
administrative costs of a few school systems, ignore the bare-bone operations of the vast
majority. Even critics of Cobb County must admit that you can’t cut enough administrators to fill
the projected $80 million deficit, especially at a time when federal and state mandates continue
to increase.

Still others suggest that local communities should shoulder more of the funding burden, yet
these critics conveniently forget that there was a time when more state support was being
provided without us having to max out the mil. Let’s be clear — it’s the state failing local
communities, not the other way around.


Like the name of the grassroots group in Cobb suggests, critics need to FACE the facts and
FACE reality.

The State’s Responsibility

No doubt, the path to fully funding Georgia’s schools will take multiple avenues and a long-term
plan but we cannot allow the state to escape its obligation and responsibility.

In education, we hear a lot about ‘accountability’. That we need to hold teachers accountable
and schools accountable. Now is time to hold our elected officials accountable.

The State Constitution Says

Georgia’s State Constitution states: “An adequate public education for the citizens shall be the
primary obligation of the state.” More than just constitutional obligation, our state elected
officials have a moral obligation to support our public schools and Georgia’s students.

Screen Shot 2013-12-13 at 5.58.05 PM

This year, I have travelled across the state speaking with parents and teachers. Parents have
told me about buses too full to have enough seats for their children. Teachers have told me
about classes so full that students sit on the floor. Duct taped textbooks, ceiling tiles that
crumble and fall when it rains, and teachers buying their own copier paper. The stories of
desperation go on and on.

We must take the first step in the long but important process of fully funding our schools.
Estimates put discretionary state revenues for this year at $300-$400 million. Parents,
educators, and community members from across Georgia must come together to urge the
Governor and state legislators to ‘Fund Education First’ and put the revenue back into the
funding formula.

We must ensure that the Governor and state legislators do not do the political thing by
attempting to buy votes through the promise of teacher raises, but do the right thing by putting
the money back into the formula, helping both teachers and students.

Putting the revenue back into the formula would begin to lower class sizes, hire back teachers,
roll back teacher furlough days, restore the 180-day school year, and expand electives for
students.

Parents – you must be advocates not only for your kids but for all kids. Educators – you must do
what you do best – educate. Educate the public concerning the issues facing education. For we
know that good schools lead to strong communities.

We cannot afford to sit back and watch as the quality of our schools and the education of our
children erodes. We must stand up and speak up for the more than 100,000 students in Cobb
County and the more than 1.6 million students across Georgia.

We must be their voice.