More than 30 percent of Georgia's high school students don't graduate. The state ranks 46th in SAT scores. And companies cite mediocre schools as one reason not to bring high-tech, high-paying jobs to Georgia. Rural schools in particular are stuck in a vicious cycle: They don't have the property-tax base to fund decent schools, but their poorly educated work force can't attract the employers to help grow that tax base.
There's bipartisan agreement that Georgia needs to reform the way it funds education. State money simply could be redistributed to reduce the inequities between systems, but that would cut the funds going to wealthier systems.
An alternative might be a statewide sales tax for schools -- an approach likely to be popular among conservative Republicans (they're already pushing to fund local school budgets with sales taxes instead of property taxes). But skeptics, ranging from liberal Democratic Sen. Vincent Fort to moderate Republican Rep. Fran Millar, worry that sales taxes aren't a stable revenue source because they fluctuate with the economy.
A larger philosophical debate revolves around the very future of public schools. Social conservatives say test scores are low because public schools are lousy. They want vouchers that would allow families to apply tax dollars to private-school tuition. That could further complicate the funding problems for public schools, however.
Gov. Sonny Perdue ran for office this year on the modest promise that he'll install career counselors in the state's middle schools. And Millar, the House Education Committee vice chairman, plans to lobby Perdue to increase funding for a "work force initiative" -- essentially high-tech vocational training in high school.
Democrats point out that such tinkering isn't likely to dramatically improve education. Senate Minority Leader Robert Brown notes that today's workers need better fundamental education because the high-tech job requirements change so quickly.
Perdue will get funding for his middle-school counselors. The work force initiative and other modest changes stand a good chance if the governor supports them and the state budget remains flush.
A lawsuit challenging Georgia's funding formula isn't expected to be settled before the end of next year's legislative session. While the governor offered vague campaign promises for smaller class sizes, little is likely to be done in that area until the funding formula is settled.
Social conservatives, emboldened by last week's huge GOP victory margins, may push for vouchers. But Perdue didn't run on that idea and will likely hold off any radical changes until the funding formula is resolved.
At 31 minutes, the average metro Atlanta commute is among the nation's worst. We also commute among the longest distances. Imagine how bad it'll be in 25 years, when we have another 3 million people.
Cars, together with Georgia Power's plants, make Atlanta's air unhealthy. The metro area regularly exceeds federal ozone-smog and particle-pollution standards. Dr. Kathleen Ann Sheerin of the Atlanta Allergy and Asthma Clinic says metro asthma cases have doubled since the '80s. Some health experts say premature deaths due to air pollution number annually into the thousands.
Alternatives that would ease congestion and reduce pollution have stalled for decades while both Democrats and Republicans poured money into roads statewide. Unlike in many other states, Georgia's gas tax can only be applied to roads. There's some talk of imposing a regional sales tax to pay for transportation alternatives.
The city of Atlanta is bypassing the state to fund its Beltline (through property taxes). But metro-wide solutions need state funding. Emory Morsberger, a former Republican legislator who's leading a push for a $400-million commuter line to Athens, wants lawmakers to provide matching money to federal grants for the so-called Brain Train, as well as for a station in Atlanta. But many GOP lawmakers are suspicious of rail. They worry that commuter lines will have to be subsidized after they're built and that people won't use them.
Lt. Gov.-elect Casey Cagle is among those enamored with privatized highways. Such schemes are being pushed by Wall Street financiers and the local road-building lobby. But they'd do little to cut pollution, would only temporarily reduce congestion and are likely to make sprawl worse. They're also costly: A study released this week by the conservative Georgia Public Policy Foundation calls for $25 billion to be spent ripping double-deck, underground toll roads and truck-only tunnels through inner-city neighborhoods.
Many planners and politicos, including some of Perdue's advisers, agree that a single transit authority is needed at the state level to coordinate the tangle of agencies in the region already governing transit services.
Perdue aides have hinted that he'll support some consolidation of metro transit services in this winter's legislative session. That may marginally improve suburban bus systems, and it could even stabilize MARTA's leadership.
The Brain Train, as well as a proposed commuter line south to Lovejoy, could die for lack of funding. If metro business leaders prevail upon Perdue, however, there's an outside chance that lawmakers could place a regional transit sales tax before voters as early as 2007.
Not surprising at all.. Most of America is a sprawling-strip mall dotted-suburbia speckled-freeway.
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