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If Georgia teachers are skeptical of governor's 2 percent raise, here's why

Teacher skepticism of the governor’s announcement yesterday of a 2 percent raise reflects their recent experience. Gov. Nathan Deal promised a 3 percent raise last year — really a one-time bonus — but many teachers saw their paychecks unchanged or diminished due to higher insurance costs.

That was because only 40 percent of Georgia school systems passed the money along to teachers as bonuses. Still reeling from austerity cuts, some rural systems used their share of the $300 million from the state to eliminate unpaid teacher furlough days or plug budget holes.

Since 2003, local school system budgets have been decimated by state austerity cuts cumulatively totaling more than $9 billion, including back-to-back annual cuts of more than a billion-plus from 2010 to 2014. The consequence of those budget slashes -- furloughs, larger class sizes, stagnate salaries -- likely played a role in the 36 percent decline in enrollment in Georgia’s teacher education programs between 2010 and 2015.

“The pay raise is real,” says senior policy analyst Claire Suggs of the Georgia Budget & Policy Institute. “Yes, the increase in employee premiums will reduce it but the salary increase is still larger than the premium increase. The salary increase is important progress as the state salary schedule hasn’t been adjusted since fiscal year 2009. Districts will still face financial challenges, though. Among other things, their cost for health insurance for non-certified workers is going up about $30 million in fiscal year 2018.”

In citing the surge in health costs at a recent Georgia Partnership for Excellence in Education media forum, Suggs reveals a little-understood truth about school funding: What the state gives with one hand, it takes back with another.

Health insurance for non-certified employees such as bus drivers, custodians and cafeteria workers is one example. In 2012, the state stopped paying its portion of those costs. So, districts went from monthly payments of $246 per employee in 2012 to $846 in 2017. Districts have spent more than $400 million since 2012.

Consider the yellow school buses that go up and down the street every day. The state shares financial responsibility for those buses, but its contribution has been shrinking. In 2000, Georgia districts forked over $385 million for transportation, of which the state contributed $152 million or 39 percent. In fiscal year 2016, districts allotted a whopping $823 million, of which the state supplied $127 million or 16 percent.

While the education budget grew by $1.5 billion from FY 2015 to FY 2017, districts enjoyed scant leeway with those new funds; 90 percent went to partial restoration of austerity cuts, student enrollment increases, routine teacher pay increases and rising retirement costs.

In its newly released Quality Counts 2017 report, Education Week gave Georgia an “F” on student spending. The state ranks 38th in how much it spends per each student. In 2014, Georgia spent $9,202 per pupil, nearly $2,000 below the national average of $11,009.

Despite yet another blue-ribbon panel on school funding — the seventh in 22 or so years — Georgia’s unlikely to see any climb in student spending. Impaneled by Deal in 2015 to rewrite the school funding formula, the Education Reform Commission avoided the thorny question of how much was necessary to educate Georgia students to college and career readiness. The commission shifted existing dollars rather than build a case for new ones.

To its credit, the commission recognized that economically disadvantaged children — who count for 62 percent of Georgia’s public school enrollment based on free and reduced lunch data — present more educational challenges and ought to earn additional funding.

Somehow, the commission priced those educational challenges at $232 a year, which means districts would earn an extra $1.29 a day for each of their low-income students. On the other hand, the commission recommended giving districts a $773 supplement per student identified as gifted.

“I don’t know what it will take to have an honest conversation about how much it will require to educate every student in Georgia to standards,” says Suggs. “But we cannot leave two-third of our kids behind.”

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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.