Kyle Wingfield

Political commentary and opinion from The Atlanta Journal-Constitution's conservative blogger

Are school budget cuts really holding Georgia back?

"Education is economic development," Jason Carter said time and again during last Tuesday's gubernatorial debate in Perry, usually before faulting Gov. Nathan Deal for Georgia's lack of school funding and lagging economy.

Carter is correct about one thing: In the long run, education drives the competitiveness of a state and its workers.

Unfortunately for his argument, "the long run" regarding education and the economy takes us back to well before Deal -- or any Republican -- took the reins in Georgia.

If you are in the "prime working age" range of 25 to 54 years old and grew up in Georgia, more than half of your k-12 education was complete before any Republican governor signed a single budget in this state. In fact, if you are over 30, chances are you finished high school before Sonny Perdue's first budget took effect.

If Carter thinks the problem for Georgia's economy is that its work force isn't sufficiently well-educated, he should blame the Democrats who ran this state while the vast majority of our home-grown workers were growing up.

But what about future workers? Shouldn't the budget cuts of the past several years -- about $1 billion annually, as Carter is apt to remind us -- be showing up as a downturn in the educational achievement of Georgia's students?

I'm afraid that argument doesn't stick, either.

Georgia, like every other state, participates in the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP. It's considered the gold standard of standardized tests, the "nation's report card."

In 2003, the last year before any of Georgia's students ever had to contend with a GOP budget, our fourth-graders ranked 37th nationally in math and 38th in reading.

By 2013, the most recent year of the NAEP, our fourth-graders had moved up five spots in math and nine spots in reading. This, even though that particular cohort had spent their entire school careers under the weight of those "austerity cuts" Carter talks about so often.

Ah, you may ask, but aren't the poorest kids being left behind as budgets fall and poverty rises? In a word: Nope.

Our fourth-graders who are eligible for free or reduced-price lunches at school rose seven places in the math rankings and a whopping 22 spots in reading compared to poor kids from other states.

Eighth-graders, the other group that's tested in all states, showed flatter gains overall. They moved up just one spot in math between 2003 and 2013 and three spots in reading.

Once again, however, breaking down the stats by income level shows a promising trend. In math, Georgia's low-income eighth-graders moved up eight spots. In reading, they rose 18 spots.

All that said, our current rankings still leave much room for improvement. Overall, our fourth- and eighth-graders still haven't broken into the top half of the rankings -- although, as a bright spot, our low-income kids are in the top half for reading in both grades.

Still, gains on these tests have come steadily, despite the budgetary doom and gloom. Embracing more outcomes-based reforms would make them come even faster. But on the evidence, money for schools hasn't been the problem.

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About the Author

Kyle Wingfield joined the AJC in 2009. He is a native of Dalton and a graduate of the University of Georgia.