by Leon Galis, the Athens Banner-Herald editorial page.
Old age is said to impart understanding. But considering that I seem to understand the world around me less well the older I get, I’m thinking this “understanding” stuff is geezer propaganda.
Among the things I don’t understand are Georgia’s the-right-hand-doesn’t-know-what-the-left-hand-is-doing education policies. Actually, since this is Georgia, it would be the-right-hand-doesn’t-know-what-the-right-hand-is-doing.
One confounding question is why we’re subsidizing private schools to the tune of tens of millions of dollars while shutting down a $2.6 million program of “sparsity” grants that have enabled some rural school districts to hang on by their fingernails. Just the description says it all. These aren’t “living-in-the-lap-of-luxury” grants.
The private school subsidy is getting a lot of attention right now, the “sparsity” grants hardly any. The former was created four years ago by legislation that allows individuals and corporations to take a dollar-for-dollar credit on their state income tax for donations to “student scholarship organizations.” The SSOs in turn award scholarships to students wanting to attend private schools.
Critics of the program are indignant because its principal architect, Rep. Earl Ehrhart, R-Powder Springs, has introduced legislation that raises the annual cap on these donations from just over $50 million to $80 million.
The criticism highlights several questionable features of the program, but has focused on its failure to abide by what one critic calls its “stated rationale” of helping low-income students escape low-performing public schools for private schools they couldn’t otherwise afford.
Whoever stated that rationale, it wasn’t Ehrhart. He recently told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution the program “was never sold” as an exclusive benefit for low-income students.
And making that even clearer, the pending legislation requires only that scholarship recipients be “eligible to enroll” in a public school. That covers every school-age child in the state, including private-school students. To remove any lingering doubts, Ehrhart has been right up front about how he sees the program, saying to the Atlanta newspaper, “I’m not trying to trick anyone. It’s a voucher.”
Meanwhile, there’s panic in the one- and no-stoplight towns below the gnat line. In Harry Crews country, small, isolated school districts serving only a few hundred students each, with so few teachers that it’s common for one teacher to cover several grades, face the prospect of somehow having to get along with even fewer teachers.
Superintendents in these districts don’t know how they’ll go from absolute bare bones to less than absolute bare bones and still offer anything remotely resembling education.
Another thing I don’t understand is why self-styled conservatives have so little interest in conserving anything. For many of these map-dot communities, the schools and the churches are the center of community life, the glue that holds these hardscrabble places together.
As Beverly Grant, a retired Quitman County teacher, told the Journal-Constitution, the school system is “the foundation of the community. Basically, it’s the only thing the community really has ... .”
Anybody who’s ever been to Quitman County will know exactly what she’s talking about. Starve the schools and you fast-track these towns toward extinction. Why don’t conservatives get that?
And why don’t they get this?: If strewing vouchers around to give people more school choices makes any sense at all, it makes sense only in urban and suburban areas, like Cobb County where Ehrhart is from. In places like that, you can throw a rock in any direction and hit a school.
But in the sparsely populated areas of the state where schools are too far apart even to consolidate, the urban and suburban fascination with “school choice” is a cruel joke. For a voucher to be worth anything, people have to have options, which the residents of the “sparsity” grant districts don’t, unless you count moving away.
To a more jaundiced eye, though, maybe this situation isn’t a case of the right hand not knowing what the right hand is doing. Maybe the right hand knows exactly what it’s doing. Because enough people in the “sparsity” districts are reliable Republican voters, the Republicans under the Gold Dome know they can jerk those constituencies around with impunity. And for exactly the same reason, Democrats ignore them. Both parties fish where the votes are. And they’re not in Harry Crews country.
This is all starting to make sense to me now.