To conserve energy, President Bush asked Americans to cancel travel that isn't really necessary or important.
In Georgia, that meant canceling school for two days.
Because really, who needs school anyway? We may bounce around the bottom in SAT scores, and almost half of our kids may leave school without a diploma, but hey, what's really important is saving enough gas to run our SUVs, right?
Sorry, I just can't get over the stupidity of that move. Forget the inconvenience to parents caused by Gov. Sonny Perdue's sudden announcement. Forget its utter futility in terms of energy saved. Think instead about the symbolism of it — to our children, to their teachers, to businesses thinking of locating here.
When things get just a little bit tough, when it's time to separate the necessary from the frivolous, what do our leaders instinctively offer up for sacrifice?
Or, to ask it another way, what does it tell you when high school is canceled, but high school football games aren't?
I cannot imagine the thought process behind such a decision. Nor can I imagine a more glaring contradiction between what we preach to our kids — "there's nothing more important than education" — and what we actually do.
School is important — but not more important than the few gallons of fuel it would take to get you there?
The truth is, Georgia's current political leadership does not value education. Perdue and others claim they do, but time and again their deeds contradict their words. The decision to cancel school to save fuel was troubling not because it was unusual, but because it so accurately reflected the mind-set of our elected officials.
Earlier this year, to cite another example, Perdue and the state Legislature once again refused to cut class sizes around the state, the one step that almost all education experts agree would be effective in improving student performance. We just can't afford it in the current budget crisis, legislators said.
Then that very same Legislature turned around and decided that we could afford to cut corporate income taxes by roughly a billion dollars over the next decade.
What's the message?
School is important, kids — but not more important than saving Coca-Cola and Home Depot a few million on their taxes.
Next year, that same brilliant leadership will try to bar illegal immigrants from attending state universities and colleges, even if those students take taxpayers off the hook by paying full out-of-state tuition.
Republican leaders know that move won't do a thing to discourage the influx of illegal immigrants. Effective action would require cracking down on the businesses that hire those illegal workers, and Republicans simply refuse to take such a step.
Instead, they calculate that they can fend off angry voters with a little gratuitous immigrant-bashing, and sadly, they're probably right.
In essence, their approach to illegal immigrants comes down to this:
We're willing to profit from the sweat off their illegal brows; we'll look the other way while they mangle themselves for minimum wage in our unsafe chicken plants.
But if they try to get uppity by seeking an education, that's where we draw the line. It's the age-old story in Georgia: If we want 'em to work cheap, we better keep 'em stupid.
However, the biggest looming threat to education in Georgia is a GOP-backed proposal to limit growth in government spending to increases in inflation and state population.
Alan Essig, director of the nonprofit Georgia Budget and Policy Institute, estimates that if such a provision had been put into effect in 1991, it would have reduced the 2004 state budget by $3.9 billion, or roughly 25 percent.
In theory, that result sounds fine to many people. But think about it: More than 50 percent of the state's general fund is spent on public education and higher education. If you add the cost of prisons, interest on state debt and health care, you're up to 80 percent of the state general fund.
So, where do you make that 25 percent cut? Since education accounts for half of the budget, its share of the reduction would have to be significant.
But again, that's the old-fashioned Georgia way. If the choice is lower taxes or smarter students, we always choose lower taxes. And look where it's gotten us so far.
Jay Bookman is the deputy editorial page editor.
© 2005 Atlanta Journal-Constitution