Education and Economic Development: A Look at the Metro Region

Georgia needs to place a higher premium by investing in our children if the Metro Atlanta region is to continue to play a large role on the world’s economic stage.

Our state offers a higher education system that rivals any other in this nation. Emory University’s medical school, Georgia Tech’s engineering school, the University of Georgia’s business and law schools, Georgia State University’s law school and Kennesaw State University’s freshman experience and WebMBA program all rank in the top 50 nationwide. With accolades such as these, wouldn’t it make sense for Georgia to have a K-12 education system that prepared students for the next step in their educational life? Much to the dismay of many parents who look to relocate to Georgia, this is not the case.

Yes, we have premier school systems in Cobb County, Cherokee County, and Gwinnett County, as well as select schools of excellence in DeKalb, Fulton and Forsyth. However, Georgia’s education system is far behind where a state with ten Fortune 500 companies should be. Why is this important to a region such as Metro Atlanta? The link between education and economic development is undeniable. Highly ranked education systems attract new businesses, more financing for schools, more tax-paying parents and higher tax revenue.

Where does Georgia rank educationally? Georgia’s graduation rate in 2011 was 67 percent; and nearly one-third of students do not graduate on time, if at all. The average SAT score of 1445 (out of the recently added scale of 2400) was slightly below the national average and 72 percent of schools made Adequate Yearly Progress in 2011. Of the state’s 78 lowest performing schools, 29 of them are in the Metro Atlanta region.  Numbers like these are cause for concern, both educationally and for the economic health of the next generation of Georgia’s workers.

Not all of the news is bad when it comes to Georgia and our commitment to education. Georgia currently ranks 13th in the nation with students scoring a 3 or higher on Advanced Placement exams. We were one of 22 states to win a Race to the Top Grant and one of only 10 states to receive a No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Waiver in 2012. Both the Race to the Top and NCLB statistics are important, in that it allows Georgia a wide range of flexibility in innovative programs, rewards success, and encourages new methods for education that work for all students. A new generation of ideas is on the horizon and some of our Metro counties are innovatively leading the way.

For example, Forsyth County was recently recognized by MSNBC for its “Bring Your Own Technology” (BYOT) program, which encourages students to bring their own devices, such as iPads, Kindles and netbooks into the classroom for educational purposes. “It’s really a simple thing,” says Tim Clark, District Technology Specialist for Forsyth County School District. “Kids have technology in their pockets and [are] taking them to school, but trying to hide them from teachers and from their parents. What we’re trying to do is have the kids take them out of their pockets and use [them] for instruction.”

Gwinnett County introduced the state to eCLASS, a pilot program that seeks to replace all textbooks and go to a full computer based digital learning curriculum. Most of the coursework used in eCLASS will be performed on district-bought computers, funded by an ESPLOST passed by Gwinnett residents in November 2011. Students may soon be encouraged to bring their own technology, notebooks, iPads and even smart phones into the classroom setting.

One of the strongest initiatives pushed by the State School Superintendent is Career Pathways, which will require ninth-grade students to pick a potential job in one of 17 broad career categories, also called career pathway clusters. Their chosen field will be reflected in the classes they take over the next four years.

The program, a product of the Georgia General Assembly’s House Bill 186, includes a wide range of industries from agriculture, finance, hospitality and tourism, manufacturing, transportation, distribution and logistics, among others. Students will take classes not only at the traditional high school, but also at technical education institutions, in order to give better prepare them for the next phase of their education.

One of the most controversial educational decisions by the state occurred during the 2012 Legislative Session with the passage of HR 1162, the Constitutional charter school amendment. This amendment, approved overwhelmingly by the voters, allows the state to approve charter schools in local districts and fully fund them, even if the local school board objects to the charter. The heart of the issue lied in the Constitutional authority that will guarantee the state has power to authorize and fully fund charter schools, over local board objections.

Proponents of the charter schools argued that charter schools amendment allows parents the freedom of educational choice, to decide what the right path is for their child and how education should serve them best.

Governor Nathan Deal was a strong proponent of the amendment stating, “Charter schools are, in my opinion, a key ingredient in the future educational success for the state of Georgia. We know that when you promote competition, innovation and creativity, which charter schools do, and when you encourage strong parental involvement, which charter schools by necessity must have, then you improve the overall climate in which learning takes place. Parents, quite frankly, are the ultimate local control.”

While charter schools are not the only antidote to fix education in Georgia, they are just one step of many innovative ways to approach education in a changing world.

Solutions such as raising the high school dropout age to 17, allowing newly formed cities to create independent school systems, increasing access to virtual schools, universal school choice and even a bill to grade parental involvement all linger in the General Assembly in some form or fashion. A change is coming to how we fund, administer and regulate K-12 education; the question remains:What do these changes mean for Georgia and the vision of tomorrow, not only educationally, but also economically?

The steps taken today to reform our primary education system to bring it up to par with our nationally ranked higher education system means a better educated, higher skilled and more diverse workforce. This will attract companies and their employees alike to the state and more importantly, the Metro Atlanta region.

The risks today support the successes of tomorrow and the Council for Quality Growth is prepared to be on the front line of support in education as a component of economic development.