This story was updated on August 23, 2023, at 4:03 p.m. to add links to SCCPSS budget presentations and other documents; the description of falling reading rates as an “epidemic” by state Sen. Billy Hickman (R-Statesboro); and the revised schedule for the literacy council’s next meeting.

“Amazing,” raved Jeanne Seaver, former Republican candidate for lieutenant governor.

“Exciting,” gushed Roger Moss, board chairman for the Savannah-Chatham County Public School System.

“Georgia’s most solvable problem,” enthused Scott Johnson, a Marietta business executive.

The outpouring of optimism was inspired by the inaugural face-to-face meeting of the newly established Georgia Council on Literacy in Statesboro earlier this month. The council’s job: to fix the state’s dismaying literacy rate.

The task is daunting and the implications of failure profound.

The percentage of third-grade students in Georgia reading on grade level or above increased by 3 percentage points in the past year, according to statistics released by the Georgia Department of Education in late July. Still, that meant that one-third of all third-grade students in the state can’t read at grade level or above.

Locally, at a news conference to discuss the data, Savannah-Chatham County School Superintendent, Denise Watts lauded an 11-point improvement in reading scores among the district’s third graders. The state’s data indicated, however, that 43.5% of the 2,735 third graders in the Savannah-Chatham system were still reading below grade level.

Overall literacy rates are low, too. According to one survey, Georgia ranked 42nd in the nation in literacy among all age groups, with a 76.4 literacy rate, ahead of Florida (76.3%) and behind Arizona (76.6%). New Mexico was the lowest ranked state (70.9); New Hampshire, the highest (88.5%).

Literacy rates among K-12 students, if not reversed, imperil the vision of Georgia as a top business hub, Johnson, the literacy council’s chairman, warned in remarks to the council in Statesboro.

“The current literacy rates are not where they need to be to support the workforce and its growing needs for our economy,” he said. “We’re the number one place to do business. Isn’t that great? But … if we don’t have a literate workforce, those jobs are going to go somewhere else.”

Insisted Johnson: “That’s not going to be Georgia’s story.”

‘The right path’

Comprised of lawmakers, administrators, educators, librarians, and child and literacy advocates, the literacy council has a distinctly Coastal Georgia flavor.

Georgia Sen. Billy Hickman
Georgia Sen. Billy Hickman

State Sen. Billy Hickman (R-Statesboro) was the lead sponsor of the legislation that created the panel.

Besides Seaver and Hickman, other regional figures appointed to the 30-member panel by Gov. Brian Kemp, Lt. Governor Burt Jones, and Speaker of the House Jon Burns (R-Newington) include Yancey Ford, superintendent of Effingham County Schools; Whit Meyers, a member of the Screven County Board of Education; and Carlette Fulcher, a teacher at Rincon Elementary School.

The law establishing the council stipulates among other things that local school systems will be required to “develop and implement five-year literacy plans” and “individual literacy plans for students in kindergarten through grade five.”

Seaver believes the council will make a difference by bringing educators and other experts together to build awareness of the problems surrounding illiteracy, including dyslexia — a learning disorder she herself was diagnosed with as a first grader.

With the aid of working groups, she said in an interview, “we’re going to be able to identify and suggest some things that will really work at the local level.”

Roger Moss

Moss agrees.

“The council was listening as well as speaking,” Moss said in an interview. “Everything we’re doing [in Savannah and Chatham County] was affirmed.

“We’re on the right path as far as the ‘science of reading’” is concerned, the board chairman said, referring to an increasingly popular teaching method, advocated by many on the literacy council, that focuses on systematic and diagnostic instruction in phonics, syllables and syntax.

A notable weakness

It is too early to say how aggressively the literacy council will exercise its statutory authority to require school districts to take specific actions to remedy what Hickman termed an “epidemic” of falling literacy rates in the past decade.

It also is premature to say how forcefully the council’s experts and politically well-connected will use the bully pulpit to goad state lawmakers and agencies into stepping up their efforts to remedy the literacy crisis.

The political stakes are already apparent, though.

Current and future K-12 students in Georgia, of course, have the biggest stake in the council’s success in advancing solutions to the state’s literacy problem. But the consequences of failure extend beyond them.

Georgia’s dismal literacy rate is a stumbling block to Gov. Brian Kemp’s ambitions for higher office.

Georgia may be, as the governor claims, citing a report card by a trade magazine, the number one state to do business in the United States.

But as Johnson, the literacy council chairman noted, the state can’t sustain the governor’s boast without an educated workforce. Nor is it a weakness on his resume that his opponents for public office in the future are likely to ignore.

‘Our North Star’

In Savannah and Chatham County, the stakes are high, too.

The Savannah-Chatham County school system­, the state’s 10th largest, continues to hemorrhage students, some to the county’s private schools.

Already, some 16% of all K-12 students in Chatham County are educated in the county’s 29 private schools, compared to the state average of 8%, according to data collected by Private School Review.

The school district’s 2024 budget presentation, dated May 26, 2023, projects a decrease of 50 students from FY2023 to FY2024. It also forecasts a decrease of 1,917 students from FY2017 to FY2024 — 37,837 to 35,920 — a 5.1% drop. 

A failure by the school district to improve reading skills could help accelerate the trend.

For critics of the Savannah-Chatham County public schools, the county’s biggest employer (6,150) and largest line item on its budget (roughly $374 million), the literacy rate among its students — only 19.8% of students in grades 3 through 8 demonstrated proficiency on reading exams, according to state data earlier this year — is Exhibit A in their argument that educational imperatives have been sacrificed for overpaid administrators.

Moss and Watts are wagering their tenures on improving reading skills among the system’s nearly 36,000 students, most of whom — 78% — are non-white. Some 58% are Black or African American.

Literacy was the main plank of Moss’ campaign platform in his successful run for the board chairmanship. Then, when the school superintendent M. Ann Levett announced her resignation in January, he made it plain that it would be the top priority for her successor.

At a meeting of the school board in June to approve the school district’s $567 million budget for FY2024, he reiterated his resolve to improve literacy in criticizing what he said were insufficient funds in the budget to address it.

“Literacy is the No. 1 thing right now,” he said.

Denise Watts
Denise Watts

Watts, who attended the Statesboro gathering with other school district staff, has received the message.

“I will be your superintendent promoting literacy,” she said when she took over for Levett in July.

The drumbeat has not subsided.

“As we have gained our North Star as literacy, we are seeing momentum, we’re seeing traction,” Watts told reporters earlier this month. Our goal is to be a shining star of academic achievement in the state of Georgia.”

Investing in teachers

Together with Moss and Watts, the literacy council is under pressure to produce results.

A Senate bill, SB 233, that would make $6,500 per student available for parents to use as private school tuition and public-school alternatives, such as homeschooling, passed the Senate unanimously earlier this year but fell 6 votes short in the House.

That students shouldn’t be captives of public schools that fail to provide adequate reading skills is also likely to be a talking point when the state legislature again takes up school choice in January.

A government-appointed committee like the literacy council is a useful tool to flesh out policy options and explore unintended consequences. It is also a way to kick the can down the road and to be seen as doing something in the absence of the political will to make tough choices to tackle a complex problem. Which one the council will be remains to be seen.

Experts say the success of the “science of reading” approach now in vogue is dependent on how much school districts invest in teachers.

Georgia’s “Early Literacy Act,” which was signed into law by Kemp in April and went into effect in July, does not include a funding source for implementing the science of reading tools, including materials and supplies, teacher training and salaries for reading instructional specialists.

In the case of the Savannah-Chatham County school district, its FY2024 budget calls for the hiring of nearly 50 early-intervention specialists, but to date, it is unclear how many have been signed up.

The literacy council convenes again on Oct. 17 at Kennesaw State University.

Craig Nelson is a former international correspondent for The Associated Press, the Sydney (Australia) Morning-Herald, Cox Newspapers and The Wall Street Journal. He also served as foreign editor for The...