Georgia State of the State Address 2001

Following is the full text of Georgia Gov. Roy Barnes' State of the State Address:

Lieutenant Governor Taylor, Speaker Murphy, Members of the General Assembly, Justices of the Supreme Court, Judges of the Court of Appeals, Members of the Consular Corps, Ladies and Gentlemen: Today, somewhere in Georgia, a child was born.

Fortune smiled on this baby girl. She was delivered into the world with the help of a good doctor, and welcomed by two healthy parents. Her mother and father couldn't be more excited. They've spent the last nine months preparing for her arrival, and dreaming about her future. They've created a warm, loving home, in a neighborhood where they feel safe. There is a good elementary school right down the street, and a park where the family will be able to take walks together, and later on, when the girl is a little older, ride their bikes.

Her parents know that, because they live in Georgia, their daughter will have incredible opportunities as she grows up - options their parents could not have imagined when they were raising their own children. Today, as those new parents hold their baby in their arms, they have good cause to hope that all their dreams for her will come true. That, my friends, is why we're here today.

We are all here because we want to make sure that every child in Georgia can live their dreams no matter which part of the state they come from, or how much money their parents have. We want to make sure our children have an even better quality of life than we do today. We have already done much here in Georgia to ensure that bright future. Through hard work and good leadership, we have all created a place where people want to live and work, and where companies want to do business. We are fortunate that, even in these tenuous times, our economy is staying strong.

Publications such as Forbes and Fortune continually rank Georgia cities as among the best places to live, work and run a business. None of this happened by accident. I'm old enough to remember when most of the roads in places like my home of Cobb County, or Gwinnett or Henry, weren't even paved. People who wanted to live in an area like that usually had no access to public water or sewers, much less public parks, ballfields, swimming pools and libraries. The schools throughout our state were among the worst in the nation, so our workforce was undereducated and underpaid.

In short, we lacked the kind of infrastructure and amenities that businesses were looking for, and that are necessary if we are to enjoy a great quality of life. But over the last four decades, something remarkable happened. Georgia was blessed with strong leaders who avoided the kind of divisive distractions that held back most other cities and states in the South. Our leaders understood the need for roads, and for other improvements like water and sewer systems. These investments opened up new areas for development where people could afford to realize the American Dream of owning their own home. We made a good start toward preserving recreational areas like the Chattahoochee River. And we began to pay attention to our schools.

As a result of these far-sighted efforts and fiscally sound leadership, Georgia emerged from its status as a poor, backward state to become the 10th largest state in the United States. Think of it we are now the 10th largest state, with a population of 8.2 million. When I was a boy, that seemed unthinkable. This came about because we gained 1.7 million residents - an incredible 26 percent increase - between 1990 and 2000. That means about one out of every five people in our state today wasn't living here a decade ago. As Doug Bachtel, a demographer at the University of Georgia, said when the new census numbers came out, "Georgia is entering the big leagues."

So today I say, the outlook in Georgia has never been brighter. But, along with our big league status, we now face some big league challenges. Today, all of us as Georgians have many good things in common. We live in a state with a wonderful climate and plenty of natural beauty, from the shores of Cumberland Island to the Chattahoochee River to the Blue Ridge Mountains. We have access to big-city amenities like major league sports and museums, but we generally have made our homes in neighborhoods and small towns that retain a friendly, Southern charm.

Finally, we all benefit from an economy that has been the envy of the Southeast, and in fact, the envy of most of the nation, for several decades. Unfortunately, we have one other thing in common: The quality of life that we all love so much is under attack on several fronts. Traffic congestion, poor air quality, a loss of green space, and pollution of our rivers, streams and lakes are threatening our quality of life; and if our quality of life declines, our economy will surely follow.

The good news is, we have already made a good start toward meeting these challenges. Two years ago, we took a significant step to address our traffic and air quality problems with the creation of the Georgia Regional Transportation Authority. We all know that these problems can't be solved overnight, but the GRTA has helped develop a transportation plan for the Atlanta region that addresses both our transportation and air quality needs. Just as important, GRTA worked hard to win approval of that plan by the Federal Highway Administration, which is allowing us to move forward with desperately needed projects like new roads and HOV lanes. It wasn't easy, but they got it done proving that if we work together, especially on a regional basis, we can start to find solutions. That is an important contribution, because as the region moves ahead, I'm sure we will want to fine tune and improve the transportation plan. But metro Atlanta isn't the only part of our state where we need to update our transportation infrastructure. I have also announced this week a plan to speed up the construction of new highways in other areas by pledging our future federal transportation dollars to issue bonds. This is a perfectly responsible approach that other states are already using, and it will allow us to begin these projects today, at today's cost.

Traffic is only one of the side effects of growth. As the population of Georgia increased dramatically, so did development. Sometimes, it seemed that construction cranes were sprouting up faster than kudzu in certain areas. Now, as vital as this new construction is to our economy, we had to take steps to preserve part of our undeveloped lands. Part of what we all love about Georgia is her beauty the majestic mountains of the north, the tranquil marshes of the coast, the timeless piney woods of south Georgia and the lush forests of the piedmont.

The Georgia Community Greenspace Initiative, which you approved last year, will help us protect that beauty even while we continue to grow. Already, we've seen some of our fastest growing counties take advantage of this opportunity to receive funds to protect undeveloped corridors. The local government leaders appreciate this program because they know that maintaining our natural beauty is important to our citizens. And just this week, we've started to work toward protecting our most precious and crucial resource water. Without an adequate supply of clean water, and the capacity to treat our wastewater, our economic growth will dry up and our quality of life will decline.

By creating a Metropolitan North Georgia Water Planning District, we will give local governments a framework for working together on an issue that affects our whole state. I hope you all agree that we're moving in the right direction to protect Georgia as a great place. But we also need to protect Georgia as a people.

The single best way we can do that is through education. If that child I spoke about earlier is going to succeed in life no matter which path she chooses she must have a solid education to guide her. Education is the ladder that enables our children to climb as high as their dreams lead them. It instills the knowledge that unlocks doors, and it should strengthen the values that provide our citizens with a moral compass.

The Governor who stood here before me did this state a great service by heightening the focus on our education needs. It's become a clich to say it, but he really did give us HOPE. HOPE that starts with putting more Georgia children than ever before into pre-kindergarten programs, so they can begin to develop the skills they need to perform successfully in school. HOPE that has provided college tuition for over a half-million Georgia students keeping more of our best and brightest young people here at home, and improving our entire university system by leaps and bounds. And HOPE that has allowed many Georgians, young and old, to get the skills they need for the jobs they want, by attending our technical colleges.

Now it is our turn to continue what HOPE began. We must focus on improving what comes in between kindergarten through high school. We have already taken significant steps toward improvements in these grades. We're building a system of accountability that will allow us to make sure our children are learning, and that our schools continually improve. We're strengthening local control of schools by involving parents and members of the community, through school councils. We're going to nurture great teaching by rewarding those teachers who work the hardest, and finding incentives to attract more of our brightest college students to the field.

We're creating smaller classes for our youngest children, and also in core subjects for older students, so they will get more one-on-one attention from teachers and have the best possible chance to learn. And we're going to make sure this happens by providing the classrooms our school districts need to do it. That is why I've proposed the largest school construction budget in our state's history, including nearly half a billion dollars directed solely towards those schools that desperately need more space in order to lower student/teacher ratios.

This is what we need, according to the Department of Education, to renovate or retrofit existing space for use as classrooms and build the permanent facilities necessary to move our students out of trailers or other temporary space. This isn't just an investment in bricks and mortar, it's an investment in our children's future by lowering class size. All of these are tremendous steps in the right direction. And while results won't happen overnight, studies have proven that we will get results if we set standards, measure results, and hold schools accountable for achieving them. Now, this approach is not some kind of experiment we just dreamed up. It has been employed successfully in Texas, when President Bush was governor there, and in North Carolina, under the leadership of Governor Jim Hunt. It forms the cornerstone of the national education plan President Bush recently proposed. These are tested ideas that work, and they have broad, nationwide, bipartisan support.

But the fact is, no matter how good the teacher, how small the class, how focused on quality education the school may be none of this matters if we ignore the individual needs of our students. A child who is on track by the time he or she finishes the third grade is very likely to finish high school, do well on the SATs, go on to college, and reap all the benefits that come with a great education. But a child who has fallen behind by third grade will probably suffer a much different fate.

You've all heard me talk about this year's CRCT results that over one-third of our 4th graders cannot read at a basic level, and that nearly half of our 8th graders struggle with basic math. How can we expect these children to build upon a subject they haven't yet mastered? How can a 4th grader who can't even read be expected to write a book report or a research project? How can a 9th grader who can't do basic math problems learn algebra? The fact is, they can't. And we shouldn't expect them to.

The CRCT results also showed that in 252 of our more than 1,800 public schools more than 50% of the children are not meeting basic standards. On SAT scores, Georgia ranks 50th out of 50 states and the District of Columbia -- only South Carolina scores lower. And for those who say SAT scores are not a good comparison because so many students take the test here in Georgia, of the 14 states and the District of Columbia who had the same percentage of students or higher 64% taking the SAT - Georgia ranked 15th out of 15.

Now, I don't tell you this to condemn public education; I tell you this so you can see the urgency in reform. If we are going to give our children the opportunity to achieve their true potential and at the same time ensure Georgia's future economic security, we must act boldly. One of the greatest disservices we can do to a child is to ignore the fact that he needs a little extra help, or a little extra time to learn. Some of these children can be helped in summer school. Many of them can be helped with Early Intervention Programs if their problems are detected in time. But for many of them, those measures will not be enough.

That is why we must have the courage to step forward now and do the right thing for all of our students, as well as our teachers. The time has come to end social promotion in our schools. Now, nobody wants to have to hold a child back in school. It is difficult for them to be separated from their peers. But if some children are still behind even after we have taken every step available to give them extra help - after school programs, alternative programs, special reading programs and so on we owe it to them to make this difficult choice.

We should do this in fairness to our teachers, because accountability is a two-way street. And if we are going to insist on accountability for our schools, we must insist that no student be promoted to the next grade level until he is proficient in the subject matter he was supposed to learn that year. But mostly, we should do it in fairness to those students who are passing through our system today without learning what they need to know. By promoting a child who is not really ready, we say, "It's OK if you don't learn." Well, I say, it is not okay.

As with any of our most difficult challenges, this is not one that can be addressed overnight. It needs to be taken one step at a time. Several research studies have indicated that seven conditions must be in place in order to end social promotion. Our education reform efforts have already focused on creating these conditions:

  • Early detection and constant assessment of student learning.

  • Targeted interventions when we discover a child is behind.

  • Smaller class sizes and individualized intervention for each student.

  • Quality teachers in the classroom.

  • Leadership in our schools that can manage schools through results-driven data.

  • Parents that participate in our children's learning.

  • State and local policies that focus on children.

    Now, we are already in the process of developing tests that measure students' ability at different grade levels in reading, language arts and math. These tests are being written by Georgia teachers and are based on the standard curriculum being taught in Georgia schools. We began to develop them as an accountability measure for individual schools, but for the individual student they could be one tool to measure readiness to move on.

    For us to utilize these tests to assess student readiness to be promoted to the next grade, we would have to have adequate time for additional instruction or targeted intervention for those who did poorly, and then enough time for them to re-take the test. In addition to these year-end curriculum tests, local systems would need to develop their own criteria for promotion, and the State School Board would need to develop standard promotion policies so there is equity statewide.

    Finally, there must be a local appeals process for parents and students when a school decides a child should repeat a grade. The most important piece of this is that we must make sure that if a child is indeed held back, extra programs will be available to help that child learn the second time around. Of course, it will take some time to get all these pieces in place. And we should proceed deliberately, because we are making decisions that will affect the futures of a number of children, and these policies need thoughtful consideration every step of the way. That is why I think we should establish a goal of ending social promotion in every area of the state within five years.

    We have used the Texas plan for ending social promotion as our guide but we have been able to cut the time in half because we already have put many of the necessary measures in place through last year's education reform effort. This will not only give us the time we need to put the proper procedures in place, it will also give us the time to develop new tools to help students before it becomes necessary to even think about making them repeat a grade.

    Repeating a grade needs to be the last resort, not an automatic response to a child who is struggling to learn. The decision not to promote a child to the next grade is a difficult one, but if we do it in the right spirit, and provide the extra help a child needs, it can be a step that guarantees future success, rather than repeated failure. Now, I know that this is an emotional issue. And in the past, some have played on those emotions by calling for an end to social promotion, without supporting the reform efforts that are necessary to really make the idea work. So, to any of you who might have done that, I say, now is the time to put those disputes aside. If you want to end social promotion, you need to help us reform education so it can be done in a fair, reasonable way.

    Improving education is the single greatest thing we can do for the people of Georgia, but there are other things we also need to do. Forty years ago, when we had all of those dirt roads in the Atlanta region, it made sense to give a teenager the keys to the family car the day he turned 16 years old. Today, with traffic that often allows no margin for error, it is a recipe for tragedy. Hardly a week goes by that we don't see a heartbreaking story in the newspaper about some teenage driver in a fatal accident on our roads. I think the time has come to take some common sense steps to protect our teens. We need to limit the number of teenage passengers a young driver can carry.

    Studies show that for just one additional passenger, the chance of an accident grows by 39%. Make that two additional teenage passengers and it jumps to 86%. Those are not good odds. We need to impose stricter curfews. Reports from insurance companies indicate that 75% of nighttime teenage accidents happen between 9:00 p.m. and 12:00 midnight. And we need to ensure that our young people have the experience they need before getting behind the wheel of a car without an adult to help them.

    That is why I agree that any teenager should have 40 hours of supervised driving before they can get a license and why I think that teens driving in metro-Atlanta should be 17 before they can drive alone in these heavily congested areas. Sixteen-year-olds are three times more likely to crash than older teenagers. The main reason for this is inexperience. It takes even more experience to handle over-crowded highways and streets. The only excuse I've heard to any of these teen driving proposals is that it may cause some inconvenience. I challenge any of you to show me a case where it isn't worth suffering a little inconvenience in order to save a young person's life. Or the life of anyone involved in one of these tragic accidents.

    I know some of you are opposed to these measures, but I ask you to consider them carefully because they save lives. And remember, the life you save may be your own child or grandchild.

    Last, but certainly not least, we must continue to cut the taxes that Georgians pay, by increasing the homestead exemption on homes and family farms. Georgia is in an enviable position today, but we can't rest on our laurels. We must work to make it even better. As President Franklin Delano Roosevelt said in his fourth Inaugural Address: "We shall strive for perfection. We shall not achieve it immediately but we still shall strive. We may make mistakesbut they must never be mistakes which result from faintness of heart or abandonment of moral principle."

    As the leaders and decision-makers of this great state, it is our responsibility to strive for perfection. We owe it to those who have sat in this chamber before us, and who did so much to lay the groundwork for the success we enjoy today, because our debt to the past can only be repaid by serving the future. We owe it to the men and women who go about their lives every day with quiet nobility, working hard, trying to raise their children right, and striving to be mindful of their Creator. We owe it to our own parents and grandparents, who sacrificed in order that we might have better lives than they did. Most of all, we owe it to every child who will be born in Georgia today. God bless you, and God bless the great state of Georgia.
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