This Spring Governor Deal announced his Georgia Competitiveness Initiative. He asked the Georgia Chamber and the Georgia Department of Economic Development to lead this initiative. Last week, our region held a public input meeting where participants provided input as to areas we could improve Georgia’s ability to compete.
According to Chris Clark, President of the Georgia Chamber of Commerce, the process has been a multi-faceted approach. First, the Georgia Chamber sent a survey to a wide array of stakeholders seeking input on the priorities that would improve our competitiveness. Then a series of twelve regional meetings have been held in all twelve service delivery regions in Georgia. These meetings, like the one in Rome last week, included a review of the survey results and then a lengthy work session where input was solicited on a variety of topics. The GCI Task Force will now compile the key takeaways from these sessions and the surveys and forward their recommendations to our state elected leaders.
Six core areas were considered in framing the conversation around competitiveness: 1. Global Commerce, 2. Business Climate, 3. Workforce Development, 4. Infrastructure, 5. Innovation, and 6. Government Efficiency. Georgia, as a state, has generally received fair to good scores in each of these areas. From those surveyed, workforce development was the number one priority that the respondents said we need to improve in. Transportation and infrastructure scored fourth as a priority.
Interestingly although the survey results illustrated that the number one priority for improving our competitiveness should be education / workforce development, those facilitating the meeting provided a 30 minute commercial on the importance of passing the Regional Transportation SPLOST. There has been ample news around the Regional Transportation SPLOST that each of us will have the opportunity to vote on next summer. But the drastic reduction in funding for education has not been as newsworthy.
Anyone who has traveled to Atlanta in recent years would argue that we have a congestion problem in the Atlanta Metropolitan area. And transportation infrastructure will always demand tremendous resources for upkeep and new capacity. The questions to be debated between now and next July include: is a regional approach the best approach? Is a penny the right amount over ten years; is it too much or not enough? Are the transportation projects to be completed the most critical in addressing our transportation needs?
And if the feedback from those solicited about our ability to compete resoundingly stated that education and workforce development should be our number one priority, what is the plan for improving education? A new State School Superintendent and University Chancellor will not impact education favorably on their own and certainly not without the necessary resources to do their job.
Over the last 8 to 10 years, our state elected leaders have balanced the state’s budget on the backs of its citizens through reduced funding support for education. In every segment of education, our state government has reduced its contribution thus requiring greater and greater contributions from parents and students either in the form of higher local taxes (property and sales taxes), direct costs like tuition increases, book expenses, etc. Or in cases where local school boards did not increase taxes to make up the difference, education delivery has suffered in the form of larger classroom sizes, reduced programs for gifted students and those needed remediation.
Consider former Governor Zell Miller’s goal of providing pre-k education for all of Georgia’s 4-year-olds. Not only did we never reach that goal, we continue to struggle to maintain the program at best. Even though we have ample data that illustrates the value in getting our children started in formal education as soon as possible, we consistently under invest at the front-end of the education continuum while spending more and more of our scarce resources on remediation programs late in the education continuum. Although I cannot prove it, I would argue that every dollar invested in teaching a child to read by the third grade provides a multiple of ten in savings in both education remediation costs and the costs associated with criminal acts associated with an illiterate / ill-prepared citizen.
I was taught early in my working life not to bring up a problem without a solution or at least ideas of how to solve the problem. If the survey results presented at the Georgia Competitiveness Initiative are valid and workforce development (aka – education) is our highest leveraged opportunity, maybe we should re-think HB 277 (the Transportation Improvement Act). Maybe we should authorize the one cent sales tax increase statewide but split the money between investing in education and transportation. In addition to increasing the state sales tax, other tax reforms already identified last year by the Special Tax Reform Council could also be implemented providing for better tax policy and more resources for the most critical needs of our state.
Unfortunately political ideology will likely prevent any course correction. Those in the majority have backed themselves into a political corner by vowing to never raise taxes (or reform them). As the global economy that all of us compete in continues to become more and more competitive, we must continuously reinvent ourselves and re-invest in ourselves. We must have universal pre-k, first-class k-12 public education, and cutting- edge technical colleges and universities. Georgia has at times been able to boast about its forward-thinking educational initiatives. But as state support for education continues to lag behind and local communities and parents struggle to make up the difference, our state will not be able to compete on the global stage.
Your Chamber will continue to advocate for adequate funding for education and workforce development. As a former Chancellor of our University system once said, “ask me any question and the answer is education, education, educ