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Georgia may expect excellence for its students, but it's unwilling to pay for it

Georgia finances its public schools at what is considered a basic level, determined by an outdated funding formula. And there doesn't seem to be the political will to change that.

(Yes, there have been increases in state funding but there also have been increases in enrollment at the same time. Those increased state dollars have funded more students, not more quality, teachers or programs.)

Former Gov. Sonny Perdue impaneled a commission to define the best practices in education and put a price tag on them. "Today, basic doesn't cut it. Georgians expect more. They expect excellence for their children," he said.

Over four years, the task force hosted more than 75 public meetings and held discussions with 105 school systems. Members examined prototypes of high achieving schools. Yet, in the end, the task force didn't offer any recommendations on funding because the price of excellence was more than the governor or Legislature felt Georgia could afford.

Four years ago during his re-election bid, Gov. Nathan Deal made a campaign pledge to overhaul the formula. He, too, assembled a dream team to modernize school funding, the state's seventh such august body.  And Deal vowed to fix the problem before he left office in 2018. But Deal will return the key to the governor's mansion at the end of this year without making good on his promise.

"There were too many other things that were important that we felt like we could achieve," Deal told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in a recent front-page story on his stalled plan to change the formula. "Until the education community itself comes to the realization that they need to improve the quality of their educational offerings only then will you be able to address these bigger and broader issues."

Joseph G. Martin Jr. is an expert on the Georgia school funding formula. He helped write Georgia's 1985 Quality Basic Education Act funding formula and served on several subsequent committees that tried to amend it. In this piece, Martin discusses the recent AJC story explaining why so many governors, including Deal, backed away from their pledges to reform funding.

By Joseph G. Martin Jr.

The front-page article in the AJC last week explains the reasons usually given to change the funding formula for Georgia’s schools, but glosses over the underlying problem that is being overlooked.

Even the people who designed the original Quality Basic Education formula agree that it should be updated.  However, the proponents of a new formula are unwilling to accept any objective measure for determining the instructional needs of our students.  They want the amount of financial support to be based solely on the judgment of the General Assembly.

The Georgia Constitution does not grant discretion in this regard to our state government.  It mandates that the “provision of an adequate education for the citizens shall be a primary obligation of the State of Georgia.”  The definition of “adequate” becomes meaningless if it is left to the whim of our legislators.

The formula can and should be updated, but only with a careful process for determining student needs. If nothing else, the basic funding should be enough to provide a teacher and essential support for a class of a reasonable size.

The local schools should be able to allocate these funds in the best way to educate their students, but there should be at least a minimum amount of state funding that everyone can understand. And this funding must be coupled with clear expectations about performance.

Unfortunately, the current proposals for a new funding formula would make it easy for the state to cut its support for our schools, without even being noticed.  This problem can be prevented, however, in the recommendations of  Gov. Deal’s commission by setting the “base amount” at a realistic level, which represents the actual cost of a typical class.  All of the other calculations would then be adjusted accordingly.

The important effort to update the funding formula for Georgia’s schools should not be delayed any longer, but it must be based on an objective measure of the actual costs and not a subjective opinion.  If the General Assembly decides to appropriate an amount that is lower than what the formula indicates, it should acknowledge what is being done so that the public will know.



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About the Author

Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.