A dramatic improvement in public education would solve many of Decatur’s most pressing problems.
Despite a solid industrial base and a growing technology sector, Decatur struggles to attract high-income residents. This often is blamed on housing, but the root cause is unfavorable comparisons between Decatur City Schools and neighboring school districts. Potential residents create no demand for housing if test scores or old schools lead them to believe Decatur schools are inferior. If there is a demand for upscale housing in Decatur, developers will provide it.
Attracting high-income residents, of course, would improve local tax revenue.
Decatur struggles to keep young adults, but this too is partly a function of public education. Most directly, a positive experience in school increases the likelihood that graduates will come back. Less directly, improved housing and carefully invested tax revenue will help in attracting young adults.
One of the most pressing problems faced by Decatur is its high poverty rate. Student poverty is itself the major obstacle facing Decatur City Schools, but the school system also offers the best long-term solution. Public education is the most effective tool for ending generational poverty.
Unemployment is high, but industries are desperate for skilled labor. More high school vocational programs and increased coordination with Calhoun Community College would help.
With a new superintendent and fewer federal restrictions, the Decatur school system has more options than it has had for decades.
Would students benefit from a pre-kindergarten program? Would more neighborhood elementary schools help, either in education quality or in economic development? Does the school system need more programs for sixth graders, who too often get lost in the transition to middle school? Does Decatur need a consolidated high school?
None of these solutions are easy and none are cheap. As citizens recognize the public school system provides the most effective tool for improving Decatur, though, the available resources expand.
When the City Council is weighing expenditures, it also should consider whether the city would enjoy the greatest benefit if the money was spent on projects historically handled by Decatur City Schools.
School officials should work with city and community leaders to find projects that would benefit from private contributions. The purpose of some projects may be to improve the education of existing students. Other projects may have more value as an economic development tool, suggesting different funding sources.
If all of Decatur gets behind its school system, the city will thrive.
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