I was invited to speak at the Michigan Association of School Boards (MASB) 2008 Annual Fall Conference in Traverse City, MI. I’m a veteran school board member, author of several books on leadership and school governance, and former columnist and contributing editor for the American School Board Journal. I spoke on The Art of School Governance and my presentations were well-received.
I was born in South Georgia and have spent my entire life there. I don’t have a drawl, but I do have a slight accent; slight at home, perhaps more pronounced (by comparison) in Michigan. After one of my presentations I was winding down by wandering through the resort’s gift shop. It had an outstanding selection of Life is goodâ merchandise and some of it was even on sale. I was enjoying browsing and responded, “No, thank you” to her offers to assist me. Other than those three words the only other things I said were, “Yes, I need an XL” and “Thank you for your help” until I started to leave.
She said, “You have a lovely accent.”
“I don’t have an accent at home, only outside the South.”
She laughed and asked, “Are you from the Tidewater?”
Recounting the conversation later back home in Georgia, my wise-acre college junior son offered that my accent was more “Okefenokee that Tidewater.” He did not mean it as a compliment.
My ancestors were some of those early English settlers in the Tidewater region of Virginia, but restless as they were, moved South and West long ago. To the Michigan ear, I suppose one Southern accent sounds like another. To Southerners, however, “swampers” and “hillbillies” are akin and are NOT an accent with which one wishes to speak.
The accents differ, but the issues facing school districts are very similar. Both Georgia and Michigan have a mixture of large, urban districts (Detroit and the metro Atlanta area) and rural districts. In both states, the large, urban districts get the lion’s share of attention (and funding). Rural school districts are struggling all across America. Our politicians are neglecting rural students this neglect is not benign, it will remand generations to poverty. While none of our leaders have verbalized any ill intentions, their actions have consistently articulated, “These children don’t matter.”
They do matter. Their children matter and their grandchildren matter. Yet we are inexplicably following a course that will create modern day Snopes, Benseys, and Waldens. (Those are “white trash” Southerners, appearing in Erskine Caldwell’s Tobacco Road) We can do better- and we must.
The boundaries of one or our most neglected regions have changed over the years. It’s the Wiregrass Region, and early on it referred to nearly all of southern Georgia, much of southeastern Alabama, and the Florida Panhandle. Some today consider it to be just a handful of counties in the extreme southern part of our state, plus a few in Alabama and Florida. Boundary lines that will satisfy most begin just below Macon, Georgia, follow the Fall Line west to Montgomery, Alabama, turn south toward the Panhandle, then east towards Lake City, Florida. There the boundary turns north, running in the general vicinity of the Suwannee River and western edge of the Okefenokee Swamp. At an imprecise point above the Okefenokee, the boundary bends to the northwest and heads back towards Macon.
The region contains no major cities, but significant population centers include Dothan, Enterprise, and Troy in Alabama; Albany, Americus, Thomasville, Tifton, Valdosta, and Vidalia in Georgia; and Marianna and Tallahassee in Florida. All – and everything in between – suffer extremely high poverty rates. Today, as in much of Georgia’s history, the Wiregrass Region is arguably a place of relative isolation which lacks economic opportunities, especially when compared to “the other Georgia” – Metro Atlanta and the northern counties.
Aristida stricta, the native tall grass than has for eons given cover to rattlesnakes and quail, now shields underserved children from the view of Atlanta’s politicians. Their relative invisibility makes these children vulnerable and easy to ignore. Even in the unlikely event that all their parents, grandparents, and other relatives turned out on Election Day, their representation can’t approach that of a typical child from North Georgia. So like a regressive or fixed tax which is more burdensome to the poor, Georgia’s “austerity reductions” continue to hurt rural systems far more than their affluent counterparts in northern Georgia. And no one cares.
Perhaps we should form non-profits and air commercials like other third-world areas? With pictures of sweet, big-eyed children and captions that read “For just a dollar a day, you can help a Wiregrass Child” or “Order a Grande instead of a Venti this morning and use the difference to help educate a child from the Wiregrass Region.” I guarantee we’d have better luck than approaching the politicians. With increasing impunity as they’ve gotten away with it, they have systematically shifted much of the state’s constitutional obligation to educate its student to the local taxpayer. They’ve turned a deaf ear to constituents and ignored the plight of Georgia’s most vulnerable citizens.
Never before have I viewed my state as cruel or unfeeling, but I’m at a loss for any other explanation. How else can we explain deliberate neglect – especially when the consequences of such neglect are more profound than they’ve ever been? Our actions (or inactions) today will result in profound consequences in the future.
Similar situations exist across our nation. Whether our students speak Tidewater, Okefenokee, Yat, Boontling, Appalachian English, Florida Cracker, Wawarsing, Yooper, or any other of the dozens of regional dialects, funding for public education has reached a crisis point. We should speak with one voice – with one marvelous blend of dialects – and demand our politician satisfy their moral and constitutional obligations to educate our children.