Governor’s panel recommends school funding overhaul, more money

Georgia schools will get another quarter of a billion dollars if Gov. Nathan Deal and lawmakers ultimately agree to an overhaul of the state education funding formula that was proposed Thursday.

A committee working for Deal is recommending changes that would add $258 million to the education budget, a 3 percent increase over this year’s amount, more than $8 billion.

Teacher advocates and other observers lament that this proposal puts less into education than the current formula would, if the state funded it properly. The new formula would increase the state contribution to schools to $8.47 billion. That’s around a quarter of a billion dollars less than the existing formula requires. Georgia has been shorting its schools since 2003, by so-called “austerity” cuts.

The funding formula in the Quality Basic Education Act of 1985 has been praised as thorough but criticized as too complicated and outdated. Deal wanted a simpler formula that gives schools more flexibility in spending the money.

“We’ve produced a product that will hopefully lead to better educational opportunities for children,” said Charles Knapp, a former president of the University of Georgia who leads the committee and the larger commission that will hear the recommendations Nov. 19.

Margaret Ciccarelli, a staff attorney and lobbyist for the Professional Association of Georgia Educators, a teachers advocacy group, said her organization will lobby hard to ensure “that promises to revisit this issue and end austerity are fulfilled.”

During the 2012-13 school year, Georgia spent $9,099 on each student, according to the Education Commission of the States. That was 18 percent less than the national average of $10,700.

A memo to the committee from The Georgia Budget and Policy Institute, a fiscal watchdog in Atlanta, noted Georgia’s expectations for students have risen since the 1980s and reasoned that it should cost more to educate them. Failure to fully fund schools “risks leaving students without the resources needed,” it said. The group has argued that this proposal locks in the remaining austerity cuts.

The Foundation for Excellence in Education, a national group founded by former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, commissioned a poll that found support among likely Georgia voters for more educational spending, provided there is greater efficiency in the educational system. A lobbyist for the group has been monitoring Deal’s commission and issued a statement Thursday saying the funding proposal “would empower schools, educators and parents to put their money where their students’ needs are” while moving Georgia “away from a one-size-fits-all approach to a custom fit” for each student.

Under the proposal, new teachers would be paid according to whatever pay-for-performance model each district selects. Districts would get the same amount for each teacher, except current teachers who would be grandfathered under the traditional pay scale. The traditional scale pays more for years of experience and credentials obtained.

Schools would get extra money to teach each gifted student, each “economically disadvantaged” student and each student whose native language is not English. However, each gifted student would be worth an extra $750 — more than each of the other two combined, committee member Lindsey Tippins said.

The Republican state senator and former school board member from Cobb County said he didn’t think it cost that much to provide gifted services. He tried to shift that funding to all students in fourth and fifth grade, reasoning that those years are crucial for learning math. His proposal failed.

If the full Education Reform Commission agrees with the new funding plan, it will be up to Deal to push it through the Georgia General Assembly next year. Two of his representatives at Thursday’s meeting declined to comment.

Tippins and three other lawmakers on the panel endorsed spending the additional dollars. He said the public and school systems will have ample opportunity to vet the proposal. And, he said, “It’ll be actively discussed in the legislative process.”

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