Matt Jones is a public school teacher from Vidalia, Georgia. He is a co-founder of EmpowerED Georgia. He spoke with Athens Patch recently about his organization and some of the challenges facing public education in Georgia today.
What is EmpowerED Georgia?
An education advocacy group. It’s made up of 3,500 students, parents, educators and concerned citizens across the state.
What does it do?
Inform—we saw there was a big gap in education coverage in the media. Education issues are complex. The public is given catch phrases, but no one is explaining or discussing the difficult issues. These are in-depth issues, and we didn’t see that coverage happening anywhere else. So we decided to do it. We want to give people as much information as possible. On the website, we’ve organized the news that’s out there by category and topic.
Engage—second step, after you learn about the issue, what do you start to do? We send out a weekly e-newsletter.
Empower—Action and advocacy. People can find out who their representatives are. We try to inform people about who their representatives are. People are so busy…we try to make advocacy simple and convenient. Our biggest strength has been reaching out to all education stakeholders. It’s a bottom up strategy, not a top down strategy. We’re promoting a different vision for the state.
What’s the most critical issue facing public education in Georgia today?
How the General Assembly is undermining public education. Chipping away at public education, which is a way to chip away at communities. They have $50 million for a private program, SSO’s, and they don’t have $50 million for our public schools? The legislators give $50 million to voucher programs without accountability or transparency instead of giving it to public education funding. And they’re creating demands for more accountability, more red tape and more mandates to public schools. Local districts have to pay for these mandates. The state no longer funds the majority of public education.
The current threat is the and the charter school amendment. What gets us is you have one side saying, "Choice, options and competition" and the other side saying,"Local control, back to the good old days." You have business interest and institutional issues. One side is going back and the other side has some ideas. There’s not a vision being promoted. One side knows the points and the message, and the other side doesn’t, and they’re going to lose. Our response is "Choice, competition and options, too, with restrictions." We are advocating that charter schools can be focused in areas that need some options where there are chronically under-performing schools. It doesn’t make sense for performing school systems to have these charter schools. There’s no reason to establish them where schools are doing well. We say, set up a charter school in some of these areas where schools are not doing well, and wait a year and see what they do. Right now, charters can kick out kids for academic and behavior problems, kick them right back to the public schools. Are the challenges being addressed or just shifted around. The charter schools have low student populations and a small number of special education students. If you have fewer than 30 special ed students, their scores don’t count toward their overall performance.
Some charter schools we looked at did out-perform public schools. Look at the subgroups, compare like students to like students. How do the black kids do? The special ed students? You need fair comparisons instead of overall comparisons.
They call them public charter schools, but there are all these barriers to their being public. There are charter schools without lunch rooms and charter schools without buses. They call it 'public charter schools,' but it is really public? These charter schools have corporate boards, made up of business people, with no parents, teachers or people from the community. Where's the accountability?
Funding the Charter School Admendment are businesses that will benefit directly, such as online companies, food services companies, charter companies and construction companies. There’s a group pushing for it called Families for Better Public Schools. Whose the director is Mark Peevy, who owns a charter school company. So the amendment’s passage would benefit him directly.
What can the average person do to help public education?
Go to the website, sign up for the e-newsletter.
Every page has a share button to email to friends.
Learning about the issues is a good first step. Find out who your representative is….tell them you support public education. Say, "I’m involved, I am going to keep my eye on you." Write a letter and get your friends and send it to them.
Most state legislators aren’t used to hearing from their constituents. They don’t hear from people, they’re not getting pressure from their districts. Share the website URL with your representatives. Send letters.
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