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Proposed school funding formula: Simplified, but not transparent, adequate or equitable

Joseph G. Martin Jr. is an expert on school funding and helped write the original Quality Basic Education formula. He was involved in educational policy at the local and state levels for many years and was often called upon by the Legislature to share his expertise on school finance issues. Martin is now working in international development.

Because of his background, I asked him to look at the newly released recommendations of Gov. Nathan Deal's Education Reform Commission on school funding and tell us what he thinks.

By Joseph G. Martin, Jr.

The Education Reform Commission has issued a broad range of recommendations, many of which will be very beneficial, but its efforts to design a new formula for the financing of Georgia’s schools were hampered by political constraints.

The existing QBE formula, as it is known, was enacted in 1985.  Even those of us who were involved in creating this formula recognize the need for revisions.  It’s important to simplify the formula and give greater flexibility to local schools.  However, the formula has to have enough structure to ensure that the State fulfills its obligation under the Georgia constitution to provide an adequate education for every student.

The formula recommended by the commission begins with a “base amount” that is supposed to represent the cost of the general program in grades 6 to 8.  This cost is then extended to cover other grade levels and characteristics through the use of multiples.  The key problem is that the base amount, on which the entire formula is built, is not a realistic measure of what it costs to provide an adequate education.  It was derived from the current spending for this program.  The serious deficits and “austerity cuts” that exist in the QBE formula would continue.  They just wouldn’t be shown anymore.  And the lack of a clear and logical way to determine the actual needs would become even more harmful in the future.

Simply stated, the starting point for the proposed formula is an arbitrary number based on what has happened in the past instead of a careful estimate of the cost of an adequate education.  Even though local schools should be able to choose the method of instruction, they still need a realistic level of support to educate their students.

Another major problem is the complete elimination of the two programs to prevent students from falling behind (the Early Intervention Program) and enable the students who have fallen behind to catch up (the Remedial Education Program).  These programs have been replaced by a small adjustment for poverty.  This can be a self-fulfilling prophesy, because it assumes that all disadvantaged students are not doing well in school and that the only students who need extra help come from low-income families.  Moreover, the additional funding on a per-student basis for poverty is less than a third of the addition for gifted students.

The third problem is a missed opportunity.  The most complex and misunderstood parts of the QBE formula relate to the adjustments for the wide disparities in the local tax digest throughout Georgia.   The current mechanisms contain misleading assumptions and internal constraints which inhibit their equalizing effect.  It’s possible to correct those flaws and construct a simple formula that achieves the desired result.  Unfortunately, this need was not addressed in the recommendations of the commission.

The public may be lulled to sleep by the fact that the total funding will increase slightly if all of the recommendations are fully implemented.  That temporary result doesn’t mean this is a good formula, but only that the previous funding of QBE was even more inadequate in meeting the needs of our students.

One of the announced goals for the commission was to simplify the formula.  This goal has been accomplished, but at the expense of transparency as well as adequacy and equity.

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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.