For the sake of discussion, this column will assume a few things as given: There are higher numbers of children in poverty in our public schools than ever before. More on that later and the data to prove it. Many more children arrive at the schoolhouse door with mental health issues and are generally “off the chain” than we can imagine. And finally, we expect our schools to provide a salve for the above and all the other societal ills.
First, some children are dealing with issues children ought not have to deal with. The lunch they eat at school is the last they will see until they return to school the next day. It’s hard to believe, isn’t it? But it’s true. What institution has responded? Schools. Kids go home with goody bags on Fridays to hold them over the weekends. During the summer, buses troll neighborhoods looking for hungry children -- and they are easy to find.
This isn’t happening in some far off land. This is happening right here. Yes, it’s a shame, and it’s not always an indictment of their parents. Some are doing the best they can, working two jobs trying to keep a roof over their heads. Many are single parents, and far too many are headed by females working minimum-wage jobs.
Before going into the yada, yada, yada of “they shouldn’t have had them (children) if they couldn’t support them” trope, think about what exactly living on minimum wage means. You would be talking about people who are working, not sitting at home scarfing off welfare. Give them some credit.
Georgia has the second lowest minimum wage in the nation. Everyone might think it’s $7.25 an hour, but according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, that’s only if the employee is covered under the federal Fair Labor Standards Act; otherwise it’s $5.15. It’s rather telling that the five states without a minimum wage are all in the South: Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina and Tennessee. And in all of those states, plus Georgia, according to the Southern Education Foundation, the low income student population is 58 percent or higher.
The poverty threshold for a family of four is $24,250. According to the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s annual Kids Count report, 44.6 percent of the children living in Bibb County in 2013 lived in poverty, 17.9 percent higher than the state average.
Of course, families in those straits qualify for free or reduced price school meals, food stamps and other benefits. But the one benefit government can’t give is time. No matter your income, there are only 24 hours in a day. And if you’re working two jobs trying to keep the lights on, who is going to parent-teacher conferences? Schools are expected to pick up the slack. And resources are slim pickings there, too.
Today, more than half of Georgia’s schoolchildren are impoverished (62.2 percent). According to the Georgia Department of Education, lawmakers have cut just shy of $8 billion from public education since 2003. And don’t believe the hype about the great recession. Since 2012, lawmakers have cut $4.6 billion from public education. And when they go into foolish talk about adding money to education, it just means they aren’t stabbing it quite as deep.
They have been underfunding public schools based on their own Quality Basic Education formulas. In 2015, the austerity cuts amounted to $746 million below the QBE formulas. Next year it’s slated to be $466 million below. All the while these concerned lawmakers have given $341 million to private schools since 2008 with no accountability at all. None.
Research by the Georgia Budget & Policy Institute clearly shows that the dividing line between students who reach proficiency and those who don’t is not race, but family income. Students on free and reduced price lunch scored 28 points lower on the 2013 National Assessment of Educational Progress exam than students not on free and reduced lunch. In math, the gap was 30 points.
Knowing that education is the key that unlocks a life of success, how has Georgia responded? In 2015, 36 percent of the 180 school districts cut back funding for struggling students, according to the GBPI. Eighty-four percent increased class size, and 84 percent have fewer teachers.
I’m sounding the alarm because this problem is not going to disappear. It will get worse. If left to the lawmakers in Atlanta, the high-tech future of the world will pass Georgia by, and with it goes economic prosperity. Even the haves will become have nots.
Charles E. Richardson is The Telegraph’s editorial page editor. He can be reached at 478-744-4342 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Tweet @crichard1020.