Charlie Harper: Quality Schools Key To Economic Development

Charlie Harper

Tuesday, February 28th, 2017

The sales pitch for investment in education is tried and true.  We can pay now, or we can pay more later.

Most often, this equation is linked to the rising expense of our criminal justice system.  Most education advocates can quickly equate the cost of educating a student versus the cost of housing one prisoner.   Those without a quality education are significantly more likely to end up behind bars.  Thus, the sales pitch is made that we can spend more now on education, or end up spending much more later on prisons.

Governor Nathan Deal used the groundbreaking of the new Cyber Innovation Training Center in Augusta to change the sales pitch a bit.  The Center, which will train Georgians for positions supporting the Army’s new Cyber Command based at nearby Ft. Gordon, is a strategic investment to leverage the Command with Augusta University as a foothold to incubate a community of private sector employers to co-locate nearby.

The Governor didn’t mince words when it comes to the weak link in the plan.  According to a report by WJBF’s Anne Maxwell, Governor Deal said of Richmond County “They have too many failing schools…people do notice…the military takes note of that.”

Richmond County Schools have some of the worst performing schools in the state.  A double digit number would have been eligible for state takeover had the Opportunity School District amendment passed.  It didn’t, and many school systems (including Richmond County) are pretending that we no longer have a problem.  More on that later.

The Governor, for his part, has adopted a two prong strategy.  Given that his plan didn’t meet the approval of voters, he’s leaving “Plan B” to the state legislature.  Multiple bills have been filed in the state House that would specifically address failing schools with additional oversight, grant state charter schools parity with local schools, expand Student Scholarship Organizations, establish Education Savings Accounts, and even provide vouchers for children of active duty military parents.  

There’s a second strategy to invert the education establishment’s non-stop sales pitch for more money.  The Governor wants to make it clear that communities that rely on their local school boards to operate a jobs program that they can produce better results now, or they will pay in jobs later.

The companies that would locate to be near the Cyber Command will evaluate the area like most other companies do.  School quality factors heavily, as parents who work in the high tech field tend to be highly educated themselves, and want their children to have access to quality schools.  Luckily, neighboring Columbia County does just that.  Richmond County, to be blunt, falls well short of expectations.

Parts of Georgia that fall well outside Atlanta often wonder why the Atlanta area gets all the growth and most of the good jobs.  Solutions proposed often rely on additional lanes of asphalt, rather than better returns from their investments in education.  Without schools that would attract the parents that would work in the jobs these communities want to have, better roads only make it easier for top talent to leave town faster.

In many of Georgia’s smaller counties, the local school board is the county’s largest employer.  As such, systems are run as a jobs program first (with much of the payroll met by state tax dollars), and results are clearly secondary.  This is great if you work for a local board of education.  Not so great if you need skills to get a 21st century job when you graduate from one of their schools.

The response from the Richmond County School Board’s response to the Governor was emblematic of the problem.  Spokesperson Kaden Jacobs in the same WJBF report responded to the Governor Deal’s remarks by saying “…I’d like to remind the Governor and others that OSD did fail by a wide margin so the chronically failing school list doesn’t exist anymore.”

And that epitomizes this problem. The Governor understands the link between today’s education system and tomorrow’s economic activity. Entrenched and well paid bureaucrats see failing schools only as a political battle.  Worse, they believe since they won a round, the problem no longer exists.

Meanwhile, they continue to fail an entire generation of students who are destined to a life of poverty. They believe they won.  It’s only the students who lose a lifetime of economic mobility.  And the communities they live in will continue to pay that price until something dramatically different is done.  

Commentary and opinion by Charlie Harper, Executive Director of PolicyBEST, a public policy think tank focused on issues of Business & Economic Development, Education, Science & Medicine, and Transportation. He’s also the publisher of, a website dedicated to State & Local politics of Georgia.