Georgia’s schizophrenic politics of education

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Here’s the first AJC post by Lee Raudonis, of all things the former exec for the state Republican party, and now who runs PAGE’s STAR program. Makes you want to move to another state, although a better solution may be to get to the polls this November (just beware that your vote for President may not help things much either way).


2:18 am September 26, 2012, by Maureen Downey

Lee Raudonis is a former teacher and former executive director of the Georgia Republican Party. He is a communications consultant and writer for an education publication. He coordinates the STAR program for the PAGE Foundation. (The Student Teacher Achievement Recognition (STAR) program honors Georgia’s outstanding high school seniors and the teachers who have been most instrumental in their academic development.)

This is his first essay for the blog. Welcome.

By Lee Raudonis

I admit it. I am confused. I do not understand the method behind what certainly appears to be the madness of Georgia education policies. O.K., maybe “madness” is too strong of a term to use, but there is no doubt that many educators—and parents— consider our state’s approach to education policy over the past decade to be both confusing and maddening. There is not much doubt that it has been schizophrenic.

Think about it. Early in the new century Georgia was one of the first states to embrace the policies of No Child Left Behind, including increasing accountability and testing. At the same time, the legislature significantly raised education spending in order to lower class size, and the governor pushed to strengthen the curriculum. And then, toward the end of the decade—even before the recession—the state imposed significant budget “austerity” reductions that have led to increased class sizes, and, in many systems, to shortened school years (some systems hold classes less than 150 days a year). [143 is the shortest – J]

With large numbers of the state’s schools forced to fire or furlough teachers, as well as cut back on education programs, including art, music, physical education and others, many legislators began to ramp up their criticism of the public schools for “teaching to the test” (but not scoring high enough on the same tests), having class sizes that were too large to provide individual attention, and having “poorly-trained” teachers who were “failing” to educate far too many students.

The real failure has been that of the elected officials who have failed to connect the dots between their legislative policies and many of the conditions that exist in the public schools. They have also failed to understand how these unacceptable conditions in the schools might be addressed.

Rather than attempt to find additional funding to lower class size and keep the doors open, the critics began to devise a myriad of plans to help students “escape’ from their neighborhood schools to private or charter schools. This has led to even more schizophrenic policies.

One that comes readily to mind is the state’s recent push to promote STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) education while simultaneously devising a clever system to provide state-funded scholarships for parents to send their children to private religious schools where theories such as Darwin’s Theory of Evolution are treated like something scientists dreamed up while taking mind-altering drugs. No doubt about it, teaching the Biblical explanation of creation over that of the scientists will go a long way to boost Georgia’s reputation in the STEM community and the nation’s top colleges and universities.

Meanwhile, as most schools continued to struggle just to keep the doors open for a full school year, the politicians jumped headlong into another federal program called Race to the Top. This latest federal “cash for cooperation” plan calls for even more testing and accountability and could eventually cost the state billions of dollars it obviously does not have. Do the politicians really plan to implement any of the Race to the Top programs, such as Pay for Performance, or did they just see a way to get their hands on federal dollars to replace some of the state funding they had cut?

Is it any wonder that so many of us are confused? How can anyone understand the seemingly schizophrenic policies pursued by our elected officials over the past decade?

Unfortunately, there are no signs of a cure in sight. Even now, legislators are attempting to “fix” our public schools by taking even more money from them to fund state charter schools against the wishes of education officials in local communities. Isn’t that a curious policy for those who claim to support “local control” in education?

If you are as confused as I am, ask your legislative candidates to explain the state’s education policies to you. Their answers should be entertaining if not enlightening.

– From Maureen Downey,for the AJC Get Schooled blog


On how we treat teachers.

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Tried to find the electron copy of the way Maureen Downey planted this in the Monday print version but they’re moving files. She sent me this “in between” version. Very nice piece.


A few days ago, 350,000 students returned to school in Chicago, where the striking teachers’ union agreed to a new contract, ending a dispute that involved multiple grievances, including the use of student test scores in evaluations.

The seven-day strike reignited the debate over how we regard teachers and whether current reforms impose too much accountability on them without giving them enough autonomy. In fact, one of the victories in the new full contract — which is still being finalized — is that teachers, rather than principals, get to write their own lesson plans.

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel had wanted tests to make up 40 percent of the criteria; the agreement brings it down to 30 percent. Teachers had other concerns, too, including honoring class-size caps and maintaining recess, art, music and foreign language instruction.

“The issues raised by Chicago’s educators and parents resonate across this nation because they are being felt by teachers, students and parents everywhere, ” said American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten. “These issues include endless budget cuts that have eliminated art, music, gym and other critical subjects from our public schools; a growing obsession with high-stakes testing, denying kids the rich learning experiences they need; closing down rather than fixing neighborhood schools, which destabilizes neighborhoods; and concentrated poverty that forces schools to take on more in the face of dwindling resources.

“With all of this, teachers continue to be denied the tools and conditions they need to do their jobs and then are blamed for every problem facing our schools, ” said Weingarten.

An ongoing frustration among Georgia teachers has been that politicians focus on policies that are unproven. For example, Georgia lawmakers are now in a battle mode over a charter school amendment that will greatly expand the number of charters by giving authority to the state to overrule local boards and approve schools. Millions will be spent in the campaign to influence the outcome of the November ballot question.

But the evidence from other states is that a surge in charter schools does not lead to a surge in performance.

So what has been proven to boost achievement? Raising standards, curriculum and teacher quality.

The countries transforming their education systems have trained, lifted and empowered teachers, elevating the profession to the status of doctors and lawyers. They have not vilified teachers, marginalized them and run them off.

Speaking last week in Atlanta, noted reformer Phil Schlechty, author of “Working on the Work” and “Shaking up the Schoolhouse, ” said there are two current paths being touted for fixing schools — bureaucratic centralization or fragmentation/privatization.

“I say a pox on both their houses, ” he told the Professional Association of Georgia Educators Foundation.

Neither path, said Schlechty, recognizes the changing and critical role of teachers in a world where information is now easily obtained by an 8-year-old with a laptop.

“We don’t really understand that the primary role of the teacher has been absorbed, ” Schlechty said. “Most of us still see teachers as instructors because we see ourselves in the knowledge distribution business. Today, kids can go out and get the knowledge. What we have to become are knowledge work systems to help kids work on and with that knowledge.”

Teachers today must become designers of work for students and leaders/guides to instruction, as opposed to the instructor, he said. As leaders, teachers help students find their passions and their voices and inspire them to great work.

There are folks who complain that teachers, including those in Chicago, have no right to complain about worsening work conditions and escalating responsibilities, that everyone is being asked to do more with less. But Schlechty noted that teachers have been charged with a task never before asked of American educators at a point in time when resources and funding are evaporating: Keep students in school and educate them to higher and higher standards.

“Schools were designed to send 10 percent of students to college, ” he said. “In 1960, half the kids didn’t drop out of high school — because they didn’t come to school. They got through eighth grade and left. Schools are much better than they used to be at what they used to do, but we don’t want them to do that anymore.”

— Maureen Downey, Atlanta Journal Constitution, Monday, September 24, 2012

A former welfare mom speaks out

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Hi all – I’m sorry, I know I’ve been remiss in pestering you. Our conference on our doorstep reminds me I can’t shirk this fun..  Below is an editorial from the New York Times from a woman who was one of the now famous 47% – just like my officemate and so many of the students we have at GGC. There really are people who have to choose between a book for school or food for their kid.


I had trouble using this as a point and click, but it should work if you copy/paste. Text below just in case.

September 21, 2012

I Was a Welfare Mother


Bethel, Conn.

I WAS a welfare mother, “dependent upon government,” as Mitt Romney so bluntly put it in a video that has gone viral. “My job is not to worry about those people,” he said. “I’ll never convince them that they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.” But for me, applying for government benefits was exactly that — a way of taking responsibility for myself and my son during a difficult time in our lives. Those resources kept us going for four years. Anyone waiting for me to apologize shouldn’t hold his breath.

Almost 40 years ago, working two jobs, with an ex-husband who was doing little to help, I came home late one night to my parents’ house, where I was living at the time. My mother was sitting at the card table, furiously filling out forms. It was my application for readmission to college, and she’d done nearly everything. She said she’d write the essay, too, if I wouldn’t. You have to get back on track, she told me. I sat down with her and began writing.

And so, eight years after I’d flunked out, gotten pregnant, eloped, had a child, divorced and then fumbled my first few do-overs of jobs and relationships, I was readmitted to the University of New Hampshire as a full-time undergraduate. I received a Basic Educational Opportunity Grant, a work-study grant and the first in a series of college loans. I found an apartment — subsidized, Section 8 — about two miles from campus. Within days, I met other single-mom students. We’d each arrived there by a different route, some falling out of the middle class, others fighting to get up into it, but we shared the same goal: to make a better future.

By the end of the first semester, I knew that my savings and work-study earnings wouldn’t be enough. My parents could help a little, but at that point they had big life problems of their own. If I dropped to a part-time schedule, I’d lose my work-study job and grants; if I dropped out, I’d be back to zero, with student-loan debt. That’s when a friend suggested food stamps and A.F.D.C. — Aid to Families With Dependent Children.

Me, a welfare mother? I’d been earning paychecks since the seventh grade. My parents were Great Depression children, both ex-Marines. They’d always taught self-reliance. And I had grown up hearing that anyone “on the dole” was scum. But my friend pointed out I was below the poverty line and sliding. I had a small child. Tuition was due.

So I went to my dad. He listened, did the calculations with me, and finally said: “I never used the G.I. Bill. I wish I had. Go ahead, do this.” My mother had already voted. “Do not quit. Do. Not.”

My initial allotment (which edged up slightly over the next three years) was a little more than $250 a month. Rent was around $150. We qualified for $75 in food stamps, which couldn’t be used for toilet paper, bathroom cleanser, Band-Aids, tampons, soap, shampoo, aspirin, toothpaste or, of course, the phone bill, or gas, insurance or snow tires for the car.

At the end of the day, my son and I came home to my homework, his homework, leftover spaghetti, generic food in dusty white boxes. The mac-and-cheese in particular looked like nuclear waste and tasted like feet. “Let’s have scrambled eggs again!” chirped my game kid. We always ran out of food and supplies before we ran out of month. There were nights I was so blind from books and deadlines and worry that I put my head on my desk and wept while my boy slept his boy dreams. I hoped he didn’t hear me, but of course he did.

The college-loan folks knew about the work-study grants, the welfare office knew about the college loans, and each application form was a sworn form, my signature attesting to the truth of the numbers. Still, I constantly worried that I’d lose our benefits. More than once, the state sent “inspectors” — a knock at the door, someone insisting he had a right to inspect the premises. One inspector, fixating on my closet, fingered a navy blue Brooks Brothers blazer that I wore to work. “I’d be interested to know how you can afford this,” she said.

It was from a yard sale. “Take your hands off my clothing,” I said. My benefits were promptly suspended pending status clarification. I had to borrow from friends for food and rent, not to mention toilet paper.

That’s not to say we didn’t have angels: work-study supervisors, academic advisers and a social worker assigned to “nontraditional” students, which, in addition to women like me, increasingly included military veterans and older people coming in to retrofit their careers. Faculty members were used to panicked students whose kids had the flu during finals. Every semester, I had at least one incomplete course, with petitions for extensions. One literature professor, seeing my desperation, gave me a copy of “The Awakening” by Kate Chopin to read and critique for extra credit. “But it’s not a primer,” he cautioned. (Spoiler: she walks into the ocean and dies.)

With help, I graduated. That day, over the heads of the crowd, my 11-year-old’s voice rang out like an All Clear: “Yay, Mom!” Two weeks later, I was off welfare and in an administrative job in the English department. Part of my work included advising other nontraditional students, guiding them through the same maze I’d just completed, one course, one semester, at a time.

In the years since, the programs that helped me have changed. In the ’80s, the Basic Educational Opportunity Grant became the Pell Grant (which Paul D. Ryan’s budget would cut). In the ’90s, A.F.D.C. was replaced by block grants to the states, a program called Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. States can and do divert that money for other programs, and to plug holes in the state budget. And a single mother applying for aid today would face time limits and eligibility requirements that I did not. Thanks to budget cuts, she would also have a smaller base of the invaluable human resources — social workers, faculty members, university facilities — that were so important to me.

Since then, I’ve remarried, co-written books, worked as a magazine editor and finally paid off my college loans. My husband and I have paid big taxes and raised a hard-working son who pays a chunk of change as well. We pay for sidewalks, streetlights, sanitation trucks, the military (we have three nephews in uniform, two deployed), police and fire departments, open emergency rooms, teachers, bus drivers, museums, libraries and campuses where people’s lives are saved, enriched and raised up every day. My country gave me the chance to rebuild my life — paying my tax tab is the only thing it’s asked of me in return.

I was not an exception in that little Section 8 neighborhood. Among those welfare moms were future teachers, nurses, scientists, business owners, health and safety advocates. We never believed we were “victims” or felt “entitled”; if anything, we felt determined. Wouldn’t any decent person throw a rope to a drowning person? Wouldn’t any drowning person take it?

Judge-and-punish-the-poor is not a demonstration of American values. It is, simply, mean. My parents saved me and then — on the dole, in the classroom or crying deep in the night, in love with a little boy who needed everything I could give him — I learned to save myself. I do not apologize. I was not ashamed then; I am not ashamed now. I was, and will always be, profoundly grateful.

A writer who was the co-author of Carissa Phelps’s “Runaway Girl: Escaping Life on the Streets, One Helping Hand at a Time,” and is at work on her own memoir.