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Decatur's success can be replicated across Georgia

7/3/2014, 4:22 p.m.
Reach into our communities and you’ll find parents, students and educators working together to improve their schools.

By Valerie Wilson

Reach into our communities and you’ll find parents, students and educators working together to improve their schools. Despite enormous obstacles – often put in their path by Georgia legislators – these passionate people have made real strides on behalf of our children.

I have spent the last 20 years trying to make a difference in public education. I served for 12 years on the City Schools of Decatur School Board. For seven of those years, I chaired the board and was later appointed to a statewide position by the governor.

I’m privileged to have played a role in one of our state’s most notable education success stories. Decatur City Schools have enjoyed a remarkable turnaround. But that’s not where we began. When I joined the board in 2002, our student population had shrunk to 2,100. Seven elementary schools were draining operating funds away from our middle and high schools. Morale was low.

Decatur’s reforms didn’t come easily. But they didn’t require a magic formula either. We concentrated on the basics. We had one thing going for us: Whatever their politics, economic status or ethnic backgrounds, people really care about their kids’ education.

Georgia’s contribution to operating our schools has dropped dramatically. Legislators – including my opponent in the Democratic runoff – voted to cut education spending. Despite the state cuts, many schools have managed to hold the line on property tax rates. But many other systems were forced to take such drastic steps as furloughing and shortening school years. This is not acceptable.

Education reform isn’t a slam-dunk. It’s complicated. What works for a large suburban system like Gwinnett may not work in poor rural systems, like the one I attended as a child in southeast Georgia.

The core principles of effective change are universal. It requires treating students, parents and teachers with respect. It demands thoughtful, steady, independent-minded leadership – with a deep commitment to education. That kind of leadership is desperately needed.

I believe the problems that existed in Decatur – and our turnaround success – can be modeled across the state. Georgia has been shortchanging its children for too long.

As state school superintendent, I will work with students, parents and teachers to develop a meaningful public schools funding formula. I will work with those same allies to examine curriculums to be certain our children can compete in a global economy upon graduation. I will work with Georgia’s Legislature to dig into their district funding so they can make the best possible policy decisions on education that would reduce class size, improve teaching outcomes and student achievement.

I believe that we must welcome parents to the table and treat educators with respect. We must be open to new ideas but stick to the core principle that children come first. We can convene the community in an honest search for solutions.

I’d like to have the opportunity to bring about meaningful change for our public schools – for our children and for our families. I hope you will partner with me to do that.

Valarie Wilson is seeking the Democratic nomination for State School Superintendent in the July 22 runoff elections.