An Op-Ed Written by State Representative Lisa Campbell
America’s founders advocated for the creation of public education from the earliest days, even as our Constitution was being written. President George Washington, in his Farewell Address of 1796, shared that expanding education was essential to the continuation of our democracy and shared values.¹ While Georgia’s educational system is firmly established, increasingly our public schools are facing grave challenges ranging from the elimination of professional teaching practices rooted in truth, evidence, diversity, and inclusion; our responsibility to maintaining equitable and adequate educational funding; and the critical need to ensure that our students have the freedom to learn.
In Georgia, there is a growing trend to ban books and punish public school teachers. Just this past week, the Cobb County School Board voted down party lines, 4 to 3, to fire the Cobb County fifth grade school teacher, Katie Rinderle, who read a highly acclaimed, award-winning book about acceptance called, “My Shadow is Purple,” by Scott Stuart; a Scholastic book she purchased at her own school’s book fair. These men disregarded the formal tribunal of former educators they appointed, who issued a rejection of the superintendent’s recommendation to terminate. They also made this decision in direct opposition to the sentiment of the growing majority of Georgian parents who are concerned about book banning (77% percent of parents up 11 points since last May, when 66% were troubled.)²
This decision ignores the spirit undergirding Georgia’s public education system that it should be an environment of inclusion for our diverse population. Our schools should be places where students and families come together to learn to how to think, how to read, how to build healthy relationships based on respect, integrity, and inclusion. Our trusted teachers have an important and long valued role in our schools to inspire a love of reading, host collaborative discussion about ideas, and help our students build the skills necessary to engage in critical thinking. It is the role of our teachers to educate our children about how to build a sense of common purpose and learn how to value, recognize, and protect each other and our shared humanity.
However, in the face of Georgia’s HB 1084 Protect Students First Act, an anti-democratic bill passed in 2022, teachers are being told to avoid teaching about anything considered as “divisive concepts” – consider topics such as race, gender, class, climate change, history, biology, and science. Censoring our educators and books is an atrocious disservice to our communities, especially for our young people who deserve the freedom to learn.
I applaud and stand with Katie Rinderle, and all public school teachers, for continuing the hard and necessary work of teaching our kids about how to thrive and see themselves as included, valued individuals in Georgia. Teachers have a unique and wonderful opportunity to help our students develop intellectual curiosity, how to welcome the exploration of new concepts, and spur interest in seeing things from others’ perspectives to build empathy, resilience, and lifelong learning. But this won’t happen if we legislate a culture of fear that causes teachers to stop conversations, limit examination, and prohibit learning from one another.
Another example of the threat to our educational system is the growing call for the defunding of our public schools by sending tax dollars to private entities without accountability that protects parents and kids. While we were successful in defeating the reckless SB 233 (Voucher Bill) this past session with a bipartisan coalition, this issue will likely be headed back to the General Assembly in the new year. Those pushing this privatization effort are calling for the defunding of our schools to the tune of $6,500 less per student in state allocated QBE funds. In the proposed legislation there is no cap to the number of students who could participate, no cap per family, and no cap on the length of the voucher program. Wealthy districts would be hurt less than poor districts, but all public schools would lose state money to the tune of about $210M or more siphoned from our public schools’ budgets—annually.
Another direct threat to our public schools that warrants caution are recent claims that the Georgia Department of Audits and Accounts’ economic analysis for the state’s Qualified Education Expense (QEE) Tax Credit program saves public taxpayer funds. This program provides a tax credit to those donating to pass-through organizations that pay private school tuition for parents who apply, but schools are not held to state standards, schools receiving funds are not identified, and learning outcomes are unknown. Such claims lack direct data evidence gathered during the analysis and as acknowledged by the auditors, “the exact fiscal impact cannot be determined.” This subsidy for private schools is a loser for Georgia taxpayers to the tune of at least $81 million annually and more than $172 million over the last few years.
In addition to the tax funds lost to private school subsidies, we are now seeing the catastrophic results of taking more than $11Billion directly away from public schools in the last 20+ years by not fully funding or providing adequate education services, and our educational outcomes correlate directly to our declining investment. These cuts look even worse when viewed in parallel to Georgia’s economy where our Gross Domestic Product (GDP) has grown substantially over this same time period and our Governor boasts of a $15Billion surplus. The data demonstrates a policy choice to underfund K-12 public schools, as our state’s per capita GDP has grown more than 8 percent while billions have been cut from education budgets.³ We don’t have a surplus, we have educational services not rendered and our students not learning the skills they need for success in the future.
Few institutions in our daily lives are as essential to the perpetuation of our democracy as our public schools. In this time of extreme polarization, attacks on our schools and teachers including how they operate, what is taught, what books are available in libraries, and even what teachers are allowed to discuss in the classroom, are among the most dangerous assaults on the stability and health of our state, communities and families. Rather than dismantling public education, we must instead unite and invest in our future with key statewide priorities that include:
- Updating our Quality Basic Education (QBE) formula to include a poverty weight and fully fund the budget every year
- Investing in universal Pre-K and Kindergarten
- Providing for professional salaries to attract and retain quality teachers
- Funding the newly required literacy curriculum enhancements to improve our embarrassing forty-second ranking
- Increasing professional learning scholarships and tuition free degree programs for educators
- Establishing greater transparency requirements for the QEE program to ensure accountability for taxpayers.
As a product of our public schools and university, the great granddaughter of two public school teachers, the granddaughter of a Cobb County school teacher and the daughter of a high school teacher I urge everyone to advocate that if we truly want to “protect our students first,” we must begin by protecting our public school teachers and reject disingenuous educational bills such as HB1084 and SB233, that actually harm our students. If we want to make sure that every kid in Georgia has an opportunity to pursue their own dreams and goals, then we must come together to strengthen, not sabotage, our public schools with funding, fairness and the freedom to learn.
I look forward to future work with Speaker Jon Burns and the Georgia General Assembly to fortify investments in our public educational system and develop solutions that are proven to empower teachers, support parents and inspire students to become independent learners and prepared thinkers for the jobs, careers, families and communities of our shared tomorrow.
During her first legislative session, Rep. Campbell advocated for investments in public education and opposed Senate Bill 233, legislation which would create a private school voucher program. Rep. Campbell also spoke against this legislation on the House floor; a video clip of her remarks may be found here.
The full audit report may be found here.
For more information on Rep. Campbell, please click here.
Representative Lisa Campbell represents Georgians in House District 35, which includes Kennesaw, Acworth and other portions of Cobb County. She was elected to the Georgia House of Representatives in 2022 and currently serves on the Human Relations and Aging; Budget and Fiscal Affairs Oversight; and the Interstate Cooperation committees.
² Fox News Poll, Victoria Balara, Fox News, Published April 5, 2023
³ Georgia’s 2024 Education Budget; co-authored by Director of Education Dr. Stephen Owens, Director of Economic Justice Ife Finch Floyd and Education Analyst Ashley Young; https://gbpi.org/georgia-education-budget-primer-for-state-fiscal-year-2024/