While Georgians are concerned about education funding, many say schools must learn to operate within the budget available to them, according to a new poll.
About two-thirds of the respondents support barring illegal immigrants from attending Georgia’s colleges, according to the poll conducted for The Telegraph, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and other members of the Georgia Newspaper Partnership. The results also showed strong opposition to new taxes as leaders work to reform the tax code, according to the poll of 625 registered voters by Mason-Dixon Polling & Research Inc.
The poll asked what voters would most support to address education funding, noting that Georgia cut more than $400 million from public schools this year because of the recession. The cuts led many school leaders to lay off teachers, eliminate academic programs and increase class sizes.
Statewide, 43 percent of the respondents support changing the education system so it can operate within the available budget. But 25 percent supported additional cuts to other services to provide more money for education, and 19 percent would pay higher taxes or fees to restore school funding.
Winston Taylor, an Atlanta father of three, said the issue isn’t whether schools have enough money but how they spend it.
“Our schools do have enough money, but they’re not leveraging it right,” Taylor said. “They spend too much on administrators and not enough on what really helps my kids do better in school.”
Gwinnett County parent Laurine Eidson has watched her daughter’s classes at Grayson High School get bigger because of budget cuts, but she’s unsure how to address school funding.
“We probably need to do a combination of all three things, but I don’t think there’s a lot of extra money in other programs that can go to education,” Eidson said. “The people that have money probably need to pay more, but I don’t know how you would go about getting support for that. It’s a problem, but I really don’t know what the answer is.”
Tim Callahan, a spokesman for the Professional Association of Georgia Educators, said it was encouraging that some supported making education funding a greater priority.
He questioned whether people understand all the cuts schools have absorbed in recent years. Education funding began dropping before the recession as Gov. Sonny Perdue and lawmakers implemented a series of reductions in what systems would have received based on enrollment. These austerity cuts have totaled more than $3 billion since 2003.
“If education had been fully funded before we experienced the latest cuts, we would have been able to live within our means,” Callahan said. “We keep trying to do education on the cheap, and it will hurt us in the long run.”
Voters showed greater consensus when asked whether they would support a law that would require proof of legal residency to attend a Georgia college. Statewide, 67 percent supported such a law while 22 percent were opposed and 11 percent were undecided.
“Illegal immigrants don’t belong in our public colleges,” said David Bachman, a student at Middle Georgia College. “They’re criminals and they’re not entitled to an education that is supported by our tax dollars. It’s hard to get into college. Those spots should only go to people who are here legally.”
The poll also asked several questions about tax reform. A statewide panel is considering changes to Georgia’s tax code, looking at issues such as exemptions, incentives and tax structure. The group will make recommendations to the General Assembly in January.
When asked about replacing the state income tax with a higher sales tax, people were nearly evenly split with 44 percent supporting the idea and 45 percent opposed to it. A much larger gap arose over a question about eliminating the sales tax and replacing it with other taxes, with 71 percent opposing the suggestion. In response to another question, 54 percent said they would oppose restoring a sales tax on groceries and other exempt areas in exchange for reducing the income tax.
Kelly McCutchen, president of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation, said the results weren’t a surprise, adding it’s much easier to reduce taxes than to shift them.
“People are nervous about change,” McCutchen said. “I think people will need to hear more details about what might happen. People are afraid that any shift in the tax code will be a tax increase.”