Lawmakers hear a lot on education listening tour

Usually, they’re the ones doing the talking.

State Rep. Brooks Coleman of Duluth and state Sen. Lindsey Tippins of Marietta, Republicans who chair the House and Senate education committees, hold great sway when the Legislature is in session. In recent weeks, however, both men have been traveling across the state on an education listening tour.

In an interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Coleman said they’ve gotten an earful.

Stick with the national set of academic standards called Common Core, superintendents, teachers and parents have told them. Maintain grants to poor, rural districts. Boost the Internet processing speed and capacity in smaller, rural districts. Most of all, though, ease the financial squeeze districts have endured over the past several years.

State revenues are picking up, but Coleman said he’s been careful not to promise that “austerity cuts” – reductions to education funding legislators have made during tight budgetary times – would completely disappear.

“There’s no way to fully restore it,” Coleman said. “But maybe we’re able to chip away at it, chip away at it. That’s what we need to look at.”

Any additional state funding would be welcomed by local school districts.

A survey of school districts by the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute – a research group that, like Democrats in the state Legislature, has called for more state funding for public education – found that the vast majority of districts in Georgia have taken dramatic steps to balance their budgets. Those steps include shortening their academic calendars, reducing their teaching staffs and increasing class sizes.

GBPI send out surveys this past summer to all of the state’s 180 school districts. The group got responses from 140 districts, which educate nearly 93 percent of the state’s public school, K-12 students.

The survey found:

- More than 95 percent of districts reported that class sizes have increased since 2009.

- More than 90 percent of districts reported having fewer teachers in 2013 than they had in 2009.

- About 80 percent of districts reported that they are furloughing teachers this school year. Of those districts, 69 percent are furloughing teachers for five days or more.

- 82 percent of districts reported that they spent less on instructional materials in 2013 than they did in 2009.

- About 42 percent of districts have cut or eliminated art and music programs, and 62 percent have cut or eliminated other elective courses.

- The percentage of districts with 180 days of classroom instruction has shrunk from 90 percent in 2009-2010 to 29 percent this school year. Most districts have cut instructional time by five or fewer days, but 14 have cut instructional time by at least 10 days.

The survey, which GBPI titled “Cutting Class to Make Ends Meet,” offered a comprehensive view of what school district officials have been complaining about.

Public education in Georgia “is being bled dry,” said Bill Truby, superintendent of schools in Lamar County in northwest Georgia. “It really is.”

Coleman said he knows many districts have been having a hard time.

“Some are just about to go bankrupt,” he said.

Attempting to balance the state budget in tough times, state legislators withheld nearly $8 billion from school districts over the past decade. School districts have taxing authority, but that tax revenue is tied to local property values, which plunged during the economic downturn.

Districts scrambled to balance their budgets, as required by state law.

“We’re being asked to do a whole lot more now with a lot less,” said Allen Fort, superintendent in Quitman County, in southwest Georgia along the Alabama state line.

Coleman said he and Tippins, who have been joined on their listening tour by staff from the state Department of Education, will have two more sessions – one in Savannah and one in Augusta.

When they’re done, they plan to meet with representatives of the governor’s office, the lieutenant governor’s office and the office of the Speaker of the House.

Coleman said no one he’s talked to on the tour has expected the Legislature to instantly solve all of the school districts’ financial problems. But they do want help.

“They realize funding is still tough,” he said. “Revenues are up, but we’ve got so many demands.”

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