Uphill Both Ways: What Education in Georgia Endures

There has been much ado in Atlanta, as of late. Education is a perennial issue in city and state politics. Education receives many stop-gap fixes that I find often contribute to more challenges than resolving them. As Clyde shared with you before, the somewhat controversial, yet Governor-endorsed $6,500 voucher bill failed to pass the House, largely thanks to a hand full of brave RURAL Republican state legislators. Hats off to you all! IMHO, the following Twitter solicitation of primary candidates to challenge my House member, Rep. Mesha Mainor was merited. Mainor is no stranger to controversy with her stance on police previously and now public education. But instead of rehashing the bill, or the merits of competition in politics, I’d like to take a moment to discuss how Rep. Mainor is a bellwether in Atlanta and our state on the issues of education and class and how other elements influence funding as well. I really like drawing connections between Atlanta and Georgia outside of Atlanta, so that’s what I’ll do here.

Mainor is one both Dems and GOP members should heed. IMHO, her vote speaks more to the history of classism in our state and my city of residence, which is perpetuated in myriad ways. Most notably, the incessant tax abatements, with which the Fulton County Development Authority (DAFC) has historically used to mortgage our children’s future. To be clear, this isn’t an ephemeral challenge- no – DAFC will be voting on Tuesday on a $45M tax abatement for a QTS Data Center in NPU K after the NPU asked REPEATEDLY if they would be seeking a tax abatement. I’ve found that education is an economic development tool/ accelerator of gentrification and displacement for cities and changing political demographics around our state, so it matters to me who, where, and why these tax abatements exist for companies who fund a few jobs and/ or develop in North Fulton while the kids in my (and thereby Rep. Mainor’s district) end up short-changed. Making money by state-supported gentrification is the Atlanta Way, yet usually, it’s done a bit more subtlety. The question for me now is, who perpetuates these divisive systems, and why? Spoiler alert: it’s not just rich white folks or Republicans. In fact, there are multiple levers pulled through governmental entities that make this happen. I’d like to take a moment to discuss what this shows up as in my little corner of the world.

So Rep. Mainor was speaking her truth- her district schools’ numbers SUCK. I should know, I live in between F.L. Stanton Elementary and Booker T. Washington High School. I may have made a big deal about the fact that APS District 2 (my district) didn’t have representation FOR ELEVEN MONTHS because a now-sitting Atlanta City Council member wanted to compete for the seat. I was reminded recently that he won by only 44 votes, so he basically squeaked by. NPU K makes up a large portion of his district.

When I write about the challenges I’ve found in Mozley Park, it isn’t the kids or their adults that are the problem- it’s the literally DECADES of bad representation at Council, APS Board of Ed, and probably the state level too- which is why all of the representation is new. Mainor is being responsive to those who elected her who are demanding more of the system as it is- not hoping for better public education in a state that is only beginning to get back to its full funding after years of cutting. 

I’m 41- the same age as our current funding formula for schools in Georgia, which hasn’t experienced any meaningful reform during its existence. This lack of reform is a Democrat and Republican problem- neither party has seriously taken it up until now and rather than offering more funding to our public schools, the Governor has decided to really lean into that funding following the student dynamic. And for parents in my little corner of Atlanta, that means that they can take that $6,500 right on to Woodward or Pace instead of F.L. Stanton. 

To be clear-I don’t blame them. 

Parents have limited time to educate their kids and want the best for them. What sane parent doesn’t? Education can often mean the difference between climbing social class and job success or lack of opportunity. I also know something about that. You’re reading the words written by an adult who grew up in rural Georgia whose parents sacrificed to send her to private schools from the segregation academy my own grandfather helped to establish following integration, to Agnes Scott’s Gothic towers in the Democratic People’s Republic of Decatur. My M.P.A. at Georgia State was the first degree I received from a public institution. My parents didn’t think Social Circle City Schools were a solid choice in the 80s and so to private school, I went! 

This isn’t to say I support what Rep. Mainor did- I don’t, but I do understand why she did it. I too think she should be primaried, and I hope that our district can have an honest debate about that. Previous Peach Pundit writer, George Chidi, said as much as well in previous tweets. Atlanta has previously been the death knell of voucher and charter legislation. Rep. Mainor is correct in that many in her district (on my side of town, not Midtown) are interested in solutions that serve their children rather than pie-in-the-sky stances on public education that may never come to be. 

What should also be considered as part of that debate is what’s going on in the City of Atlanta as a whole, though, as well. If you caught Clyde’s piece, his knee-jerk reaction was counter to Senator McLaurin’s. While both men debate my district and its representation, I thought I might reclaim a bit of agency and explain what brought us here.

The City of Atlanta is almost evenly split over the issue of Cop City, as a defacto discussion for modern-day policing, even along racial lines. If I were running for office, I wouldn’t want those odds. Yet those favoring more police and charter schools give the Mayor and Rep. Mainor the currency to make promises to the rings of Black excellence they must kiss in Atlanta politics. Did you see that image of a few Black men, maybe three Black women, and Ambassador Andy Young on the steps of City Hall? 

Mark that image. That’s the Old Guard of Black wealth and respectability politics in the city that is crumbling before your eyes. You see, the belief that class differences exist because of a moral failing or lack of ambition isn’t an idea unique to my Casper-like companions. Respectability politics run deep in the more melanated circles as well. I’d like to remind any Georgians reading this that stymying the voices of younger Black men also isn’t a uniquely Tennesseean challenge: Julian Bond was not seated by the Georgia General Assembly in 1966 and (on a smaller scale) Chris Brown, Rasheen Hunter, and Jereme Sharpe were all seen as “problems” in one way or another to the current Atlanta Planning Advisory Board President and her comments regarding “Millennials” speaks to the ageism faced within the City-based Board. 

Oh, and if anyone is wondering, the Municipal Clerk’s office still hasn’t found the time to call me to allow me to take a 10-minute oath of office. Walking and chewing gum at the same time in Atlanta is almost as big of a challenge as carrying water for petty personal favors of other the city employees.

Mainor and the Mayor are betting that as her district/ the city of Atlanta becomes more affluent, the demand for better schools is growing faster than traditional public education (in a state that doesn’t really economically support it) can provide it. They know too, as I do, that when it comes to education issues, rapidly gentrifying communities like mine will choose a shiny new program geared toward parents in their Mercedes G class in which their kids can connect to jobs in creative industries or tech over engaging more volunteers for literacy programs to catch up the kids who’ve been living in the district since birth. The latter is the challenge I see in almost every kid who comes to my home. They cannot read on grade level, and this challenge is (IMHO) a direct result of cutting education over their short lifetime in Georgia at the state level, a group of state leaders (from any party) who weren’t willing to risk the political capital to reform QBE, and my area’s Council and Board of Ed members who ignored the needs of children in the west and south side of Atlanta. As a reminder, my previous Council representative held her office for 27 years. Following White Flight and the Crack Epidemic, the west and southside of the city have been largely ignored by developers for decades while the county has mortgaged the city’s children’s futures in the form of tax abatements for companies setting up in Midtown, and in the north and east sides of the city.

And this Tuesday, DAFC will decide if it will reward QTS Data Center for its net -50 jobs in NPU K by giving them a $45M tax abatement. For reference, that’s a data center in the Howell Station neighborhood, in the upper Westside. Don’t know where Howell Station is? Have you been to The Optimist? Miller Union? Chipper Jones could hit a ball across Marietta and West Marietta respectively and hit Howell Station. This is PRIME real estate, and QTS is asking for DAFC to now incentivize its already-made-choice to purchase and remediate the land, and job destruction so that the starched shirts can skim off the top of their tax bill while leaving the kids in the area with fewer resources as their world gentrifies around them. It isn’t surprising to me that they chose Morris, Manning, & Martin, from the slick Financial Center building in Buckhead to represent them. It’s really just too fitting, ya’ know?

This picking of winners and losers in taxes and their funding has got to stop. It’s created a tax divide that contributes to some areas prospering in the city and other areas not. Often these are couched in issues of race or politics. But this isn’t a conservative vs. liberal issue or Black vs. white. This is literally a bad tax policy decision that is inevitably shifting the burden to homeowners in Atlanta. And while I haven’t yet figured out how to run Arthur Ferdinand out on a rail, the VERY LEAST we can do is charge market rate for our property taxes of commercial properties to fund our own crumbling infrastructure! 

And look, tax abatements are a reasonable tool to use when ATTRACTING businesses, but QTS is in the construction phase of their Howell Station address. They’ve already made the decision to set up here, they aren’t going to up and leave now that they’ve started building! Let’s save the abatements for attracting larger businesses to our region. When I say region that doesn’t necessarily that all businesses are meant for Atlanta. We don’t need big box stores, or warehouses, but other surrounding areas might and if the region were working together rather than balkanizing at the municipal level, we might make some significant impact in planning for regional growth rather than one-offs, like QTS that benefit a certain area versus looking at the region as a whole.

In the background, a decade-plus ago, as a state, we started discussing charter schools. We didn’t see federal regulations giving the latitude to teachers in the classroom to address the issues of literacy we found there. My Mother in law taught special education for thirty-seven and a half years, half of which was in Cobb County Schools. She can tell you how the system makes children fit into it, rather than the system meeting the needs of its kids. It has been her career. Our literacy rates as a country continue to decline, even as we test more. Don’t believe them. The Barbara Bush Foundation highlights this statistic as a nationwide adult literacy challenge- with pretty maps too! And while Governor Deal was successful in his criminal justice reform, he wasn’t with his charter takeover of Atlanta schools. Atlanta fought back HARD on that one after his right-hand woman, who threaded the plan through the legislature was given an almost $100K no-bid contract by the Atlanta School Board. Those School Board members are now a Council member and a Senior Advisor to the Mayor

Edited to add: Rusi Patel of the Georgia Municipal Association dropped some legislative history in a twitter thread after I hit publish on this piece. Here’s the beginning of that thread and link to the tweet.

The Atlanta Way of rich folks’ being saviors to the po’ folks is a system that Black and white leaders alike play a part in here and one that contributes to perpetuating the divides. By offering tax abatements in my neck of the woods to companies originating from North Fulton, we’re just redlining under another name. I would be remiss to not point out that this data center is situated next to the Beltline (THE epitome of accelerating gentrification and displacement throughout the city). And while the Mayor and the Beltline (as an organization) both articulate the importance of affordable housing in the city, I have found that the distribution of affordable housing is not equitably redistributed around it. Just like generations prior, the City of Atlanta continues to place “affordable” housing predominantly in areas in the west and south, vs. the north and east sides of the city. We’re slapping a new name on recreating the same problem.

I’m not really sure how we see that this does ANYTHING to change the disparities in the city, where we have the highest inequality in the NATION

And if you think this is an Atlanta challenge exclusively, I’ll kindly point you to those rural legislators in Calhoun, Villa Rica, Bremen, Cuthbert, Roopville, Armuchee, Cochran, Cartersville, Pine Mountain, Thomasville, Milledgeville, & Sylvester. Those legislators know that redistributing money in schools means a difference in education for their district’s kids, losing quality jobs in their districts, and sowing further seeds of inequality in their region. Your biggest sources of quality jobs in rural areas are hospitals and (as a state) we seem to be unwilling to do away with CON or expand Medicaid in a conservative manner like NC, prisons (Governor Deal’s criminal justice reform is shrinking those by the year), and schools. 

So the Governor’s plan was to use vouchers to move money from one school to another? That’s unwise, and I’m SUPER glad those rural Republicans saw that. From what I’ve read of the West End Neighbors’ Facebook group, methinks Rep. Mainor’s vote is going to be more of an uphill battle for her than she may think. 

Additionally, my husband and I were up in Cartersville recently. The building that’s going on there and the growth in the area had our Uber driver (a Cartersville native) wondering aloud where the city was going to place all the kids coming in schools. She wasn’t aware of the enrollment numbers factoring into how education money moves in Georgia, and when my husband and I told her we both grew up attending classes in trailers because the schools we attended (mine private, his, public, Lassiter) she realized that’s probably what Cartersville may have to do for a while to adjust to the influx.

Now what might happen if all those kids also came with vouchers and their parents decided they didn’t want their kids in trailers and would prefer to send them to Grace Academy of Cartersville? Now think of how traffic patterns and housing in the area might change as a result. Do you understand why planning ahead in a bigger way is something rural Republicans understood the value of?

This is why I think Rep. Mainor’s re-election campaign will be so interesting and will be one I’ll be watching- not just because I’ll be voting. This issue of vouchers divides along class lines, not race exclusively. And the voucher issue has significant impact in areas experiencing tremendous growth- rural like Cartersville, or gentrifying like Mozley Park. And like the Mayor, I’m willing to wager that Rep. Mainor betting on the old systems in Atlanta and the Old Guard isn’t as sure of a win as it has been in the past. There’s literally less of the older crowd and the younger folks (younger than me) make me look like the moderate I actually am. 

As we watch Atlanta politics shift along class lines, and Georgia outside of Atlanta politics shift with the growth of demographics and class, it seems we’re all walking to school uphill both ways- whether on gravel or well-paved roads. My hope is Tuesday’s DAFC vote won’t add metaphorical snow to the mix for Atlanta’s children, anymore than rural legislators will allow the Governor to redirect funding from their schools.

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