Georgia’s leaders are talking about increasing spending on public schools for the first time since the Great Recession forced drastic state budget cuts. Those cuts continue to prompt local districts to furlough teachers, increase class sizes and shorten school calendars.
Some news reports in advance of this month’s convening of the Georgia General Assembly say increased spending for education will be offered as money to cover a salary increase for teachers. I hope state lawmakers will resist that temptation. For the greatest impact on students, any additional education dollars should be used to guarantee that every child in Georgia attends school for the required 180 days.
Increasing teacher salaries sounds appealing and educators who have gone without a cost of living pay raise for years are past due for one. But the plan that’s been reported calls for the state to cover a portion of the salary-related increase, leaving local school districts to make up the difference.
Districts rely on property taxes to pay for some teacher benefits. When teacher salaries go up so does the cost of their benefits. And if teacher salaries go up, a commitment to fairness will lead most districts to use local money to increase salaries for cafeteria workers, custodians, bus drivers and other employees who serve students every day. Those workers have also gone years without a raise.
Many local districts across Georgia already struggle to fill gaping budget holes that persist even after they tried to balance the ledger through layoffs and increases to local property taxes.
Parents are voicing frustration over the state’s annual $1 billion shortchange of school funding, which dates to the economic downturn. In Cobb County a group of concerned parents has organized to call for lawmakers to increase state education funding.
Like many other parents across Georgia, they see the connection between reduced state support for public education and a lack of elbow room in their children’s classrooms. Called FACE It Cobb (Funding Awareness Campaign for Education), the group attracts hundreds of sympathetic parents to its meetings where they make the case that their children are a worthy investment.
Cobb is similar to many other Georgia districts struggling to make ends meet, already collecting property taxes at a rate close to the maximum state standard. Yet Cobb schools still face an $80 million budget shortfall.
The state’s monthly revenue reports turned routinely positive in 2013 for the first time in years. Since the state is reportedly going to provide relief to public schools after squeezing local budgets for years, it’s important to get this right.
Students will get a better education if their school returns to a standard 180-day calendar. Teachers will be better served if unpaid furlough days are eliminated. What is the point of issuing a nominal salary increase if local districts will still require teachers to take unpaid furloughs to balance their budgetS?
The real solution is for the state to fund public education properly, so teachers get deserved pay increases and students once again can get a full year in the classroom.