ATLANTA -- For 30 years, Georgia has seen itself as the capital of the new South, where economic growth and racial harmony would overcome the image of the region being poor and backward.
But while the state's economy has boomed, its ability to educate children hasn't -- despite an ever-increasing array of reforms, money and political attention thrown at the problem.
Georgia remains near the bottom of just about every national educational ranking. The numbers are slowly improving as the next century approaches, but not nearly as fast as an increasingly demanding populace wants.
"It's time to face the facts: For too many children, our system is not working. It is failing them. The overall trend is clear, and it is not good," Gov. Roy Barnes said after swearing in a panel created to look at reforming the state school system.
The reasons behind Georgia's inability to keep up with the rest of the nation vary as much as the state's landscape. In some places, the state is just like the rest of the rural South, still coming to grips with desegregation. Elsewhere, it is faced with problems more common in northern industrialized cities.
School systems such as Early County in Southwest Georgia must deal with populations that are for the most part under the poverty line. Kids either split their time between studies and helping their families put food on the table or don't get a lot of support from overworked parents.
Schools in suburban Atlanta, overrun by growth, are jamming kids into portable trailers while trying to appease parents moving in from other states where test scores are much higher.
Teen pregnancy rates in Atlanta are soaring. Savannah is still struggling with white flight to private schools. Macon's system remains one of the most segregated in the state.
"You can't compare Georgia to the other Southern states anymore," said University of Georgia education professor Carl Glickman, who is writing a school accountability position paper for Barnes' new panel. "While we are still dealing with the legacy of the South, we are now an international state and have as many problems as you'll see in states like California and Texas."
Part of the problem shared by all Southern states is that until the 1950s, public education was not a priority. In Georgia, an agricultural economy didn't ask much education from high school graduates, and many descendants of former sharecroppers or slaves didn't even get that far.
Things began changing when industries began locating to the state to escape high labor costs in the Northeast.
Under pressure to provide an educated work force, state government started standardizing education in each county. The process became even more centralized with the entry of the federal government, which wanted to uphold court-ordered desegregation.
Once the state and federal dollars started rolling in, so did regulations that took autonomy away from local systems. …