By Laura Diamond
While Georgians are concerned about education funding, many say schools must learn to operate within the budgets available to them, according to a new poll.
About two-thirds of the respondents to the poll by Mason-Dixon Polling & Research Inc. also support barring illegal immigrants from attending Georgia's colleges, and most strongly opposed new taxes as leaders work to reform the tax code. The poll of 625 registered voters was conducted for the Georgia Newspaper Partnership, which includes the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and the Chattanooga Times Free Press.
The poll asked what voters would most support to address education funding, noting that Georgia cut more than $400 million from public schools this year because of the recession. The cuts led to teachers layoffs, elimination of academic programs and increased class sizes.
Statewide, 43 percent of the respondents support changing the education system so it can operate within the available budget. Twenty-five percent would cut other services to provide more money for education and 19 percent would pay higher taxes or fees to restore school funding.
Winston Taylor, an Atlanta father of three, said the issue isn't whether schools have enough money but how they spend it.
"Our schools do have enough money, but they're not leveraging it right," Taylor said. "They spend too much on administrators and not enough on what really helps my kids do better in school."
Gwinnett County parent Laurine Eidson has watched her daughter's classes at Grayson High School get bigger because of budget cuts, but she's unsure how to address school funding.
"We probably need to do a combination of all three things, but I don't think there's a lot of extra money in other programs that can go to education," Eidson said. "The people that have money probably need to pay more, but I don't know how you would go about getting support for that. It's a problem, but I really don't know what the answer is."
Tim Callahan, a spokesman for the Professional Association of Georgia Educators, said it was encouraging that some supported making education funding a greater priority.
He questioned whether people understand all the cuts schools have absorbed in recent years. Education funding began dropping before the recession as Gov. Sonny Perdue and lawmakers implemented reductions totaling more than $3 billion since 2003.
"If education had been fully funded before we experienced the latest cuts, we would have been able to live within our means," Callahan said. "We keep trying to do education on the cheap, and it will hurt us in the long run."
Voters showed greater consensus when asked whether they would support a law that would require proof of legal residency to attend a Georgia college. Statewide, 67 percent supported such a law, 22 percent were opposed and 11 percent were undecided.
"Illegal immigrants don't belong in our public colleges," said David Bachman, a student at Middle Georgia College. "They're criminals, and they're not entitled to an education that is supported by our tax dollars. It's hard to get into college. Those spots should only go to people who are here legally."
While illegal immigration has long been an issue in Georgia, colleges were drawn into the debate last spring when Kennesaw State University officials said they charged an illegal immigrant in-state tuition. State law allows illegal immigrants to attend public colleges, but they must pay the higher out-of-state tuition.
Sen. Don Balfour, R-Snellville, has said he expects a new law to be introduced and passed that would prohibit illegal immigrants from enrolling at public colleges. He wasn't surprised by the poll's results.
"There's a huge issue about illegal aliens in our country, and the federal government doesn't seem to be doing anything about it," Balfour said. "Higher education is just one piece of it."
Some Georgians said they were unwilling to support the ban.
Celeste Williams, who teaches English to speakers of other languages in Cobb County, said it's hard to persuade students to study, stay in school and avoid gangs if they have no opportunities after graduation.
"It is better for us to have these kids do well in school, get a college education and become productive members of society," Williams said. "If they can pay for it, why not let them into our universities?"
The poll also asked several questions about tax reform. A statewide panel is considering changes to Georgia's tax code, looking at issues such as exemptions, incentives and tax structure. The group will make recommendations to the General Assembly in January.
Asked about replacing the state income tax with a higher sales tax, 44 percent of respondents supported the idea and 45 percent opposed it.
A much larger group - 71 percent - opposed eliminating the sales tax and replacing it with other taxes. And 54 percent opposed restoring a sales tax on groceries and other exempt areas in exchange for reducing the income tax.
Kelly McCutchen, president of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation, said the results weren't a surprise, adding that it's much easier to reduce taxes than to shift them.
"People are nervous about change," McCutchen said. "I think people will need to hear more details about what might happen. People are afraid that any shift in the tax code will be a tax increase."