The governor and state legislators made education funding a major talking point during the 2014 legislative session. Lawmakers made a less severe cut to public school funding than in recent years. The recurring $1 billion annual shortfall Georgia’s public schools suffered through since the recession is trimmed to about $750 million next year. Still, districts face big budget challenges in the 2015 fiscal year. Legislators also increased HOPE grants for students who hit high performance benchmarks, but those who fall short will continue to struggle to afford college.
The 2015 fiscal year budget, contained in House Bill 744, passed the General Assembly and takes effect with Gov. Nathan Deal’s signature. It contains $535 million more for public schools than in 2014 and includes $14 million in bonds for technology infrastructure upgrades in districts. About $314 million will reduce the austerity cut that has kept state funding for public schools well below the level required by the state’s own funding formula. In 2015 the austerity cut will still be about $750 million.
The $314 million increase lawmakers approved for next year is intended to help districts across the state afford to return school calendars to the 180-day standard, eliminate furlough days for teachers and staff, and increase teacher salaries. Districts should be able to make progress in two of these areas, but the additional money is not enough to accomplish all three.
Most of the increase outside the $314 million covers enrollment growth, teacher salary increases earned through gains in experience and education, and rising teacher and employee retirement costs. These are essential investments, but they do not address what’s been lost to budget cuts, including programs for struggling students and elective classes.
Legislators increased financial aid for higher education students. The Georgia House and Senate approved House Bill 697, which establishes the Zell Miller Grant Scholar program. This program will cover the full tuition of students who maintain a 3.5 grade point average and are working towards a certificate or diploma program in postsecondary institutions. The Technical College System of Georgia estimates about 20 percent of its students will be eligible.
The Legislature also expanded the Strategic Industries Workforce Development Grant to provide full tuition for students in high-demand fields who receive the HOPE Grant. Tuition will now be covered for students pursuing careers in welding, health care technology, diesel mechanics and information technology.
These are welcome improvements, but most students will not benefit from them. And for those that do, the gains might be temporary. Most HOPE Scholarship recipients fall below the 3.0 GPA requirement and lose their scholarships. It seems likely that many Zell Miller Grant Scholars will have at least as much trouble maintaining an even higher GPA.
Georgia’s legislators continue to tinker around the edges, rationing financial support for public school students. But these tweaks will not foster the development of the highly-skilled workforce Georgia needs for its long-term prosperity. Lawmakers must fully invest in the educational success of all students at every level. The future of the state and its children hang in the balance.