Opinion: School funding formula needs honest update

A recent front-page article in the AJC explains the reasons usually given to change the funding formula for Georgia’s schools. We can and should simplify the formula and increase flexibility, but not at the expense of other goals, including fairness and transparency.

Even the people who designed the original Quality Basic Education formula agree that it should be updated. However, the proponents of a new formula have been unwilling to accept any objective measure for determining student needs. They want the amount of financial support to be based solely on the judgment of the General Assembly.

The Georgia Constitution does not grant discretion in this regard to our state government. It mandates that the “provision of an adequate education for the citizens shall be a primary obligation of the State of Georgia.” The definition of “adequate” becomes meaningless if it is left to the whim of our legislators.

The basic funding for each student should be enough to provide a teacher for a class of a reasonable size. Although local schools could still choose the form of instruction for their students, there should be a minimum amount of state funding that everyone can understand. There must also be clear expectations about performance.

Unfortunately, the current proposals for a new funding formula would allow the state to cut its investment in our schools arbitrarily, because there would be no benchmark. This problem can be prevented, however, by setting the “base amount” in the recommendations of the Governor’s commission at a realistic level, which represents the actual cost of a typical class. The other calculations in the formula would be adjusted accordingly.

The General Assembly could still provide less funding than what the formula indicates, but it would have to acknowledge what was being done so that the public would know.

In some of these proposals, the current programs for students needing extra help would be replaced by an overall adjustment for poverty. This approach may seem simple in one sense, but it is based on the fallacious assumption that all students from low-income families – and only those students – need this help.

Moreover, the proposed number of “economically disadvantaged” students is less than half of the students who now qualify for free and reduced-price meals, and the additional funding on a per-student basis would be only a third of the extra amount for the gifted program.

Nothing is being proposed to assist the school systems that are struggling because of a low property-tax base per student. Simply stated, the state should increase its supplemental funding to these systems so that they would have a floor of taxable resources that is equivalent to the average for all students in Georgia.

The important effort to update the financing of education in Georgia should not be delayed any longer, but it must be based on an objective measure of the actual costs and not a subjective opinion. The formula should also provide extra help when needed and address the huge disparities in the resources available to local systems.

The fundamental challenge cannot be met by lowering our expectations or reducing the support to our schools. Our state should do more – and not less – to ensure that every child in Georgia has a fair chance to do well in school.

Former Atlanta school board member Joseph G. Martin Jr. helped write Georgia’s 1985 Quality Basic Education Act funding formula and served on several subsequent committees that tried to amend it.

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