House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams (D-Atlanta) spoke at length with WABE reporter Denis O’Hayer about Gov. Nathan Deal’s education “reform” proposals and the conditions of Georgia’s public schools.
She emphasized that “the state should not invest in private schools with public money” and that public schools should not discriminate or “cherry-pick” students.
Below is a full transcript of the portion of the interview about education and public schools:
WABE Reporter Denis O’Hayer: Leader Abrams, thanks for having us.
House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams (D-Atlanta): Thank you so much Dennis, it is my pleasure.
WABE: Governor Deal has said education reform is the centerpiece of what he wants to present to the legislature this session. We’ve heard about performance pay for teachers, we’ve also heard about the idea of changing the funding formula so that… To simplify it, perhaps a bit too much, the money follows the child, is this something you can live with?
Abrams: While the narrative sounds good and sound-byte, it’s a question of what does the legislation look like in reality. Money following the child is a nice sentiment, but the question is how much money and which children are we following? Urban children, rural children, poor children, special needs, ESL; we have a range of children whose cost of service is more expensive than a middle-class child in a suburban school system, and so, I think it’s critical that we have a conversation about the real cost of educating our children, but that we also make certain that we are focusing on improving our schools for every child in the state.
WABE: But can you do that? Can you say, “Okay, these children will get more per pupil than these children,” without running afoul either politically or legally?
Abrams: Certainly legally we can, because we have. That is what Title IX… That’s what Title I does, that’s what special needs funding accomplishes. We have long recognized that certain children are more expensive to educate because they come to our school systems with different needs, and I don’t think that’s a disingenuous approach to take. Politically we have to have the will to recognize this. We talk often about running government like a business, well there’s no business that thinks that every product costs the exact same to produce, and we have to recognize that the inputs may be more expensive, but the return on investment, if you are willing to put the money behind the children who need it the most, your return in investment is a lower cost of social services, and a higher cost… Higher value to the state.
WABE:: Can you expect though, suburban, Republican lawmakers to sign onto that, and in exchange, do you have anything to offer them? For instance, Democrats not standing in the way of expansion of charters for instance?
Abrams: I think first and foremost, this is the Governor’s legislation, and it is his approach. I’m more than open and… As is my caucus, to reading and understanding what this approach will accomplish. I think the negotiations have to be begin once we know what we’re talking about, and I think that it is not the beginning of the conversation, it’s the middle of the conversation. We’ve already started having the discussion, that’s why we have had QBE in place for decades. The issue is, do we want to continue a formula or formulary that does not yield the result that we want, or do we actually want to accomplish our ends?
WABE:: Are there any deal-breakers for you in this? For instance, increased access to State money for private schools?
Abrams: I believe that public schools are the province of the State, and that is what we should pay for, the state should not invest in private schools with public money.
WABE: But given the performance that we have seen in Georgia’s public schools over the years, particularly the graduation rates, especially among the very kids at risk you’re talking about, isn’t it time to consider another model?
Abrams: I think that our first responsibility is to invest in the model we have. Georgia has systematically divested from it’s public schools, we spend less per pupil as per capita than we have in years past. We have put more of a burden on local governments who have to rely on property taxes that they may or may not be able to collect, and we have ignored the increasing changes in how children learn. But the government’s responsibility is not to fund private education. I’ve served on the board of a private school; we get to cherry-pick our kids, we get to decide who we want to serve and who we don’t. The fundamental mission of a public school is that every child matters, every child is entitled to an education, and every child can be let in the door. Private schools don’t have that responsibility, private schools get to discriminate, and that’s not a bad thing, it is… The private model says you get to pick who you want. Public schools do not get to make that decision, and thus they should not be subject to losing their resources to groups that get to cherry-pick their customers.
WABE: Do you have any opposition in principle to another part of the Governor’s plan, which is performance pay for teachers?
Abrams: As a business owner I understand the benefit of merit pay, but merit pay has to be based on metrics that can be met. We don’t know what those metrics would be, we don’t know that we are willing to invest in the resources necessary to help those teachers. If you’re telling a teacher you have to achieve certain performance standards based on a 25-child classroom, but we put 34 children in there, merit pay does not make sense. If we tell a teacher that you have to deliver this return on investment based on where the child starts in your classroom versus where they should be, that’s also a different conversation, and so, until we really understand what this looks like, I am… I wouldn’t say hostile, but I’m certainly resistant to the notion of moving towards merit pay if we don’t know what merit pay will yield.
WABE: In talking to some of the folks on the other side of the aisle, I have heard at least acceptance of the idea that you would have to use different metrics for differently situated teachers, have you had any conversations with them, the Republicans or the administration, about that in any detail?
Abrams: Not in great detail, and I think again, we’re at the beginning of that conversation, there’s more to be done to understand what it looks like, which is why I say I’m not hostile to the idea. Merit pay has it’s benefits, they’re ways that you can bonus and incentivize behavior, and certainly in the private sector it can work, but any person in the private sector who’s ever done merit pay will tell you, it’s complicated, and if you have too many inputs that make the determination, you run the very real risk of alienating certain employees and unfairly benefiting others, and so, you have to be incredibly careful, and given that our children are so precious, and given the importance of our educators, I think we have to approach this conversation very carefully.
WABE: But, isn’t there a huge risk in leaving, particularly when it comes to teachers, leaving the system the way it is? We have teachers quitting in frustration, turnover is tremendous, a lot of veteran teachers are leaving.
Abrams: I think that we must approach the conversation of education and the funding of our teachers very carefully. Part of the reason for retirement, for resignation, for frustration, is that we have had an erratic approach to how we fund, how we support and what we expect of our teachers, what we expect of our educators, what we expect of our schools. One thing that I think you hear constantly is some cry for stability. Tell us what you want, and then keep it that way for more than a couple of years. We keep changing the game, and then expecting people to learn the new rules. That’s not how education works, that’s not how any organization should operate, and so I think it’s important for us not to ascribe the wrong motive to the frustration we’re hearing from teachers and from other educators. We have to understand what’s causing the challenge, we can’t just try to solve a problem without understanding what precipitated the problem.
WABE: But to be fair, it’s not just the State that has been doing this, we are right now trying to understand a new federal education law.
Abrams: It is a universal problem that we have a tendency to identify the problem and identify a solution without understanding what the problem is. We like to skip the second step. It’s the moral equivalent of a car stopping on a road, and you go in and buy it gas when the problem is the tire blew. You can’t solve a problem without understanding what caused the problem, and unfortunately our tendency has been to narrowly define our problems and broadly describe our solutions.
WABE: After all of these years of talking about it why haven’t we come any closer to identifying it?
Abrams: Because politicians have very, very different ways of thinking about things, and the challenge of the representative democracy is that you will have lots of different solutions to a single problem. The opportunity though is that the closer we come to universal solutions and to identifying the core sources of the problem, the better we get at solving it.