What really counts? 

Math skills and financial well-being aren't in the cards for Georgia students

Two weeks ago, the U.S. Departments of Education and Treasury released results of their collaborative Financial Capability Challenge, which was given to students in all 50 states, plus the District of Columbia, Guam and U.S. military bases abroad.

Georgia’s students came in 51st out of 54, with a score of 64.6 percent (F+).

We managed to beat Nevada, Rhode Island and Washington D.C. (who came in last — so stop wondering whether we’re gonna get an intelligent solution to federal budget issues).

The test questions involved fundamental math skills phrased in the context of personal finance, and the answers were multiple choice:

“Carolina has $5,000 saved from working at different jobs. She puts her money in a savings account that pays 4 percent per year in interest. How much money will be in her account at the end of the first year and at the end of the second year?”

(To the 13 Peach state students who got perfect scores out of 1,600 who took the test: Nice work, you can stop reading this and go play video games or whatever it is you kids like to do besides bully each other via social media.)

In a state that has the distinct dishonor of having a poverty level well above the national average, and whose leaders have not flinched at cutting more than a billion dollars from public education over the last several years, it’s time to wake up and realize two things:

1) There is direct relationship between educational attainment and earning over a lifetime, and 2) It’s time to have a serious discussion about meaningful education reform, not politically motivated lip service.

While Gov. Deal called education “a strategic place to invest” in his first State of the State address in January, he and the General Assembly have done little, if anything, to back up that insight.

Across the state, class sizes will grow and the school year will get shorter due to budget cuts, most visibly in Pre–K programs.

This means that kids just beginning their lives as students will be at a disadvantage in comparison to past years — years that already had Georgia near the bottom of national education rankings.

While Savannah might at times seem isolated from the rest of the state’s issues, when it comes to education we don’t have that luxury. The Savannah–Chatham school district is ranked 116 out of 155 districts in the state, and according to the state’s Kindergarten Inventory of Developing Skills test, local students entering the 1st grade are scoring below the state average in mathematics.

We’d better succeed as the “creative” coast because we certainly won’t be “math and science” coast if improvements aren’t made. And the answer isn’t as simple as writing bigger checks.

Spending on education doesn’t necessarily equate with success in Georgia, and this isn’t one of those columns saying we need to spend more on our children’s future.

We tried that and it didn’t work.

In 2003, when Georgia was nearly last in SAT scores among states, education–related spending was above 60 percent of the total budget.

This year’s budget will see the lowest per–pupil spending in a decade or more — a symptom of both cuts in state spending and rapid population growth.

But the graduation rate has improved, and we’ve climbed to 45th in SAT scores (granted, SATs aren’t the best indicator of student achievement, but a steady indicator nonetheless; the conversation about standardized testing issues is an entirely separate discussion).

Since we can’t spend our way toward a better education system, the least we can do is have discussions about how to improve education in the state. Why is it that students in Vermont, Oregon and South Dakota scored 10 to 15 percent higher on the financial capability test?

What are other states doing that we aren’t? And can we start to do what they are?

But no one convened a commission to figure out the answers to those questions. Instead we allowed the General Assembly to spend an entire legislative session debating politically motivated, ineffectual legislation like the draconian immigration reform legislation HB87, or the failed bill to require future presidential candidates to present a long form birth certificate to the Secretary of State, or a law to allow citizens to carry guns in church (really?!).

The thing is, our elected officials seem to be the only ones who are still good at math. They seem to understand the political calculus that focusing on nonsensical, hot button issues like guns or the scapegoating of brown people will get them re–elected by voters who are too ill–informed to realize what the actual issues are — like making sure our kids have better opportunities than the ones we were given, or at least know how to balance their checkbook.

While the legislative session is over for the year, rather than do some homework on how to fix things, Deal is hard at work planning a $1,000-per-plate fundraiser in Atlanta to help fund his 2014 re-election campaign.

The point of getting elected is merely to stay elected — that seems to be the only thing we can count on.



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Patrick Rodgers

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