Originally created 08/08/99

Putting the fix in Georgia public education



(Editor's note: The writer, Henry T. Edmondson III, is associate professor of political science and public administration for Georgia College and State University.)

WOODROW WILSON was once asked why he left the presidency of Princeton University to seek the U.S. presidency. "I couldn't stand the politics," he explained.

He could have been talking about the Georgia Board of Education. It is hard to discern any motive behind Gov. Roy Barnes appointments to the eleven-member State Board of Education other than his desire to satisfy constituencies essential for his re-election. Almost everyone was surprised at his controversial choices except maybe Barnes himself. I wish I could discover better reasons for the disappointing Board appointments. If they exist, though, they are too well hidden.

One of Barnes'most scandalous picks was the re-appointment of J.T. Williams. Then-Gov. Zell Miller had asked for Williams' resignation in 1996 as part of a statesmanlike housecleaning at BOE. Williams shamelessly refused -- even though he was Miller's appointment.

Another shock was the appointment of Cathy Henson, the former head of the state PTA. Henson jeopardized the good name of the state parent-teacher organization by her vitriolic attacks on the state superintendent.

UNMINDFUL OF the adage, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it," the new Board, in its second meeting, wasted no time in "fixing" Georgia's Reading Challenge program. The program is designed to "provide students in grades four through eight with quality after-school care and opportunities to improve their reading skills and enhance an interest in

reading." The existing system, that discriminates against no one, was thoughtfully pieced together in a bipartisan package spearheaded by the previous Democratic governor. The program serves thousands of Georgia children in sites all over the state.

The Board's "improvements" are likely to impose yet another disadvantage on those struggling to make a living, educate their family and insure moral and physical safety of their children. Minorities, then, will suffer at least as much as anyone else because their choices of facilities and locations will be cut back. So much for diversity in education. The program already insures that subversive material like the Bible will not be included in reading curricula. Now the Board has excluded "private" entities from receiving funds, even though they are state-certified.

SO WHY MESS up a good thing? Henson sent the Board into a panic upon discovering that some after school programs are held in church facilities. The Board cowered before the specter of some kid secretly saying grace before after-school snacks, thus sending the Constitution through a paper shredder.

We endured the Civil War. We made it through World War I, the Great Depression and World War II. We can survive if a 7-year-old learns to read after school at the Korean Baptist Church of Gwinnett County.

At one point, new Chairman Otis Brumby exclaimed, "I have a hard time believing some day-care center in some converted house has better teachers than our schools." In other words, if kids aren't learning to read under tight state control, they won't learn.

HMMM. LET'S ASK Abraham Lincoln what he thinks. Or his diplomat Frederick Douglass, the self-educated fugitive slave. The best response to Brumby's senseless remark might be, "We have a hard time believing some Board of Education meeting in some room of the Twin Towers East understands how children learn to read."

The arrogance of the Board is undiminished by its ignorance. In the absence of any evidence that money is misused by private groups, Board member Bruce Jackson pontificated, "I guarantee you some of them are taking our money. We just can't catch them at it." He later added, "This is a classic opportunity ... for money to go down a rat hole." Jackson's outbursts are as offensive as they are ominous for any tax-paying Georgia citizen concerned with the fundamental right of due process. (Surely this is not the way Jackson practices law in Atlanta.) Jackson is the Board's vice-president for appeals. Good luck if you are in the private sector.

Barnes just received rare international praise in the respected London- based weekly, The Economist. The article notes his impressive legislative success last term and his proactive control of Atlanta sprawl. But the article acknowledges the obvious: "His stock may fall ..."

WHETHER IT does may depend heavily upon his influence -- for good or bad -- in education.