Georgians are so concerned about education funding cuts that many are willing to pay higher taxes or fees to pay for schools, according to a new poll conducted for the Georgia Newspaper Partnership.
Half of the respondents to a poll of 625 registered voters, conducted by Mason-Dixon Polling & Research Inc., said they would pay higher taxes or fees to restore education spending cuts that have led to teacher furloughs and layoffs the past few years.
Statewide, 39 percent said they opposed paying more for education, and 11 percent were undecided. Women were more likely than men to support paying more for schools, and black respondents more willing to do so than whites. Democrats were twice as likely as Republicans to support higher taxes or fees for education.
Tim Callahan, a spokesman for the state’s largest teacher organization, isn’t surprised that there is support for putting more money into schools.
“The citizens of Georgia realize education is the key to the future. The future of our economy, the future of investments, the future of business, and they realize the future work force is in our classrooms today,” said Callahan of the 80,000-member Professional Association of Georgia Educators. “They see education as an important investment, and they are willing to spend more on it.”
Ada Taylor of Macon, who responded to the poll, said she would be OK with a tax increase to restore education funding. She has seven great-grandchildren who are nearing school age.
“In our family, everybody has to graduate,” she said. “We just need to help where help is needed.”
Joe Cystrunk of Macon also said he would be willing to pay more taxes for schools.
“I’m in the poor class, but I’m not a complainer,” Cystrunk said. “If they raise it and it’s for education, I don’t see a problem with it. It’s something that’s needed.”
Brunswick resident Sharon Badie agreed. “If you don’t have education, what kind of jobs are people going to get? Teachers are losing their jobs, and classrooms are too big. You get what you pay for.”
But not everyone agrees. Most nonstate school funding comes from property taxes, and particularly in metro Atlanta, those taxes have risen significantly over the past decade.
Bill Callahan, a retiree who lives near Griffin, said that while the education cuts are “very alarming,” a property tax increase would be hard to swallow.
“Property taxes now are out of sight for (those of) us retired on fixed income,” he said. “I just don’t know how much more property taxes we can afford. I believe a sales tax or a consumer fee would be fairer.”
That was a sentiment echoed by Brunswick resident Deborah Houston. “We were told if we let the lottery into the state, the money would go towards schools. Where is that money? The schools obviously don’t have it.”
State school spending per student has gone up and down the past decade. The total amount the state sent districts has dropped during the recession.
But state “austerity cuts” preceded the recession. Gov. Sonny Perdue and lawmakers have included austerity cuts, reductions in what systems should be receiving based on their enrollment, since 2003. Over the course of seven years, the cumulative austerity cuts have amounted to more than $3 billion.
The state cuts would have been far worse if not for federal stimulus money. The federal government has pumped about $900 million into K-12 schools since early 2009 to help ease the impact of the state’s fiscal crisis.
Still, school district after school district has faced a budget shortfall. First, teachers were furloughed. Then districts started laying off teachers and other school personnel. Some systems cut the number of school days to save money. Many, if not most, have increased class sizes — the number of students each teacher must teach.
Herb Garrett, executive director of the Georgia School Superintendents Association, said the poll results may show Georgians are finally seeing the results of years of austerity reductions.
“There are people who are beginning to see and feel the impact of the cuts, whether it’s the loss of a program that is near and dear to their hearts or a neighbor who has been laid off,” Garrett said. “I think the damage now is real.”
And a lot of Georgians polled by Mason-Dixon said education funding would be worth a little more from their pockets.
William Potts, who is on disability and lives in East Point, said he’s a fiscal conservative who planned to vote for a Republican for governor. But he said schools are one thing he’d consider paying more to fund.
“I think we are lagging behind educationwise in this state, and I think that’s an area we need to shore up,” Potts said.
Joseph Jarrell, a world history teacher at McIntosh High School in Fayette County, said he was surprised by the poll results, considering the struggling economy.
“With a high unemployment rate, obviously many people are worried about balancing their own checkbooks and are therefore reluctant to support something that would hurt their family budget,” he said.
Telegraph writer Rodney Manley contributed to this report. James Salzer and Nancy Badertscher write for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.