A recent AJC news story proclaimed “School districts win under proposed Georgia funding overhaul.”
The story reports:
The state budget for education would rise by a quarter billion dollars under a proposal floated Wednesday by education reformers working for Gov. Nathan Deal.
The funding subcommittee of Deal’s Education Reform Commission was tasked with streamlining the way some $8 billion is divided among Georgia’s 180 school districts and the nearly two dozen charter schools that operate under contract with the State Charter Schools Commission.
All but nine school districts come out ahead under the proposal. (They are Gainesville City, and Floyd, Burke, Coffee, Crisp, Lumpkin, Tattnall, Worth and Haralson counties.)
An alternative headline for this article might read, “School funding cuts would be permanently extended under proposed Georgia funding overhaul.”
According to the state constitution, Georgia students are entitled to an “adequate public education” funded by taxpayers. In 1985, the Georgia Legislature enacted the Quality Basic Education (Act to ensure the state was fulfilling its constitutional obligation to educate our students. Starting in 2003, well before the recession hit, the Legislature enacted “austerity cuts,” funding education at levels below the requirements contained in the QBE Act.
During the recession, the austerity cuts topped out at over $1 billion per year. Schools provided fewer instructional days, class sizes were increased, and learning suffered. This year, the austerity cuts call for schools to be underfunded per the QBE requirements by approximately $460 million.
Many of your readers may be thinking, “but the QBE hasn’t been fully funded since 2002, and it isn’t realistic to expect it to be fully funded now. We can’t afford to fund schools at the (statutorily required) QBE level.”
Looking at the historical record, however, shows that these cuts are driven at least in part by policy priorities, not dire economic circumstances. For almost 20 years, from 1985 through 2002, Georgia fully funded its K-12 schools regardless of the overall economic condition of the state.
Furthermore, there is not a clear historical correlation between the austerity cuts and Georgia general fund revenues. For example, state revenue was increasing by significant margins in 2004, 2005 and 2006. Meanwhile, the QBE shortfall grew in 2004 and 2005 and stayed flat in 2006. Underscoring the conclusion that our underfunding is a policy decision not driven primarily by economics is the fact that Georgia is 37th in school funding per student relative to other states.
This background is necessary to understand why a reform proposal that would add $241 million to the existing budget is actually a step backwards for Georgia. Schools would be still be underfunded by $219 million per the current QBE formula. The reform proposal would institutionalize the austerity cuts and permanently call for lower funding than current law provides.
While the QBE formula is overly complicated and should be simplified, any reform proposal should start from the premise that we should “follow the law” and fund schools at least on parity with the current QBE Act. Adequate school funding, while not a silver bullet, will improve educational outcomes for our students.
Improving education will help our economy, lower crime, and reduce the need for social programs. Citizens across the political spectrum should urge the reform commission and elected officials to “follow the law” when considering reform proposals.