Friday, February 11, 2011

The Difference a Teacher Makes

Last week our community lost one of its finest. Although I did not personally know Demera Robinson, I know her family. And more importantly, I have known many Ms. Robinsons throughout my life. I had teachers just like her. Those that taught more than the textbook material. Those that took a real interest in me as a person. After reading just a few of the comments from Dalton High School students, it was obvious that Ms. Robinson was just that kind of teacher.
It is times like these that we should stop and reflect on what is really important in life. As a citizen, father, community leader, and economic developer, I would argue that all things that build our community or positively affect our community are important. At the national level, things like enforcing the rule of law, protecting our country against foreign and domestic enemies, and managing our fiscal affairs are all important priorities for our national leaders to focus on.
At the local and state level, the priorities should be very basic – public safety, good schools / educational opportunities, good roads and transportation infrastructure, clean water and public wastewater treatment, and amenities for quality of life. In this day and time, basic infrastructure should be a given. Clean water and good roads are expected by taxpayers.
The Great Recession that we all are still recovering from has appropriately put a magnifying glass on the spending by our various government entities. Many political pundits are proclaiming that the Republican takeover of the US House and many state legislatures can be directly attributed to the public’s ire against runaway spending.
So what taxes are legitimate? How should our elected officials prioritize the taxes they enact and the spending they appropriate? These are serious questions that need to be debated in a bi-partisan and adult manner. We need real leaders and not politicians given the severity of the issues facing our nation, our state, and our local communities.
Over the last three years our state officials have dealt with the effects of declining revenues by cutting the state’s budget across the board. Appropriations for education have not been spared. These cuts, on top of declining digest values that determine local funding, have dealt a double-whammy to those charged with educating our children.
I, like most, do not want to pay any more in taxes than necessary. But what is necessary? I think most reasonable people want good, if not great schools. We want good roads. We want law enforcement and courts to keep us safe. But spending by our federal government on projects like studying turtle migration has clouded our view on what is important and necessary.
In the recent report from The 2010 Special Council on Tax Reform and Fairness for Georgians, good comparative data was included that illustrates the tax burden for Georgians. According to the report, Georgia ranks 39th among states in per capita taxes (State and Local combined). In state taxes alone, Georgia ranks 45th nationally. Based on 2010 numbers, Georgia is now 49th in per capita revenue followed only by SC. According to the report, “this data suggests that, relative to other states, state taxes in Georgia are very low while local taxes are approximately average.”
What are our priorities? Are the taxes that are collected and spent a reflection of those priorities? Should our officials take a new approach of re-thinking our priorities and aligning the appropriate spending on the things that matter most?
Can we afford to cut more teacher positions? What are the short-term and long-term effects of larger classrooms? I don’t pretend that these are easy questions or simple problems. But I think most would support the necessary taxes targeted at funding our highest-leveraged priorities.
Over the holidays, I watched the fictional movie Mr. Hollands Opus. The movie ends with a former student (who eventually became Governor) saying, "Mr. Holland had a profound influence on my life and on a lot of lives I know. But I have a feeling that he considers a great part of his own life misspent. Rumor had it he was always working on this symphony of his. And this was going to make him famous, rich, probably both. But Mr. Holland isn't rich and he isn't famous, at least not outside of our little town. So it might be easy for him to think himself a failure. But he would be wrong, because I think that he's achieved a success far beyond riches and fame. Look around you. There is not a life in this room that you have not touched, and each of us is a better person because of you. We are your symphony Mr. Holland. We are the melodies and the notes of your opus. We are the music of your life.”
I dedicate this column to Demera Robinson and every teacher who is making a difference in the lives of our children. Education is not an expense – it is an investment!

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