Long-Awaited State K-12 Funding Overhaul Underachieves

Georgia’s students are working hard to reach standards higher than those set for any previous generation. Meanwhile, the state is not ensuring they have the resources needed to reach those heights.

Gov. Nathan Deal’s Education Reform Commission approved a proposed new formula to fund public schools at its November meeting that lacks an assessment of the cost of educating students to today’s standards. The proposal instead aims to maintain a funding level set by the existing 30-year-old formula and based on equally out-of-date standards. It locks in some of today’s funding shortfalls. It also constrains growth, which will likely undermine school districts’ ability to provide high quality services in future years. The proposed formula advances the commission’s charge to provide district leaders with greater flexibility to spend state dollars. While flexibility can be a valuable lever for reform, it is not a substitute for adequate funding.

State Rep. Terry England, R-Auburn, Rep. Tom Dickson, R-Cohutta and Sen. Lindsey Tippins, R-Marietta are among members of the commission’s funding committee who flagged cost as an issue that should be examined. The committee focused instead on redistributing money the state now spends on schools.

It remains questionable whether the proposed dollars allocated to specific groups of students are adequate to meet their learning needs. The same questions arise over the total amount calculated for all students. Swings in the proposed amount of extra money allotted to economically-disadvantaged and gifted students highlight this uncertainty. Early on, the panel proposed economically-disadvantaged students get an extra $511 on top of the base amount every student would. Gifted students would get an extra $216. In the last proposal, the supplement for economically disadvantaged students is cut to $232 and it’s hiked to $773 for gifted students. What is the basis for the dramatic swing? That is less than clear. And we still don’t know what extra supports districts can provide to either group of students with the added dollars.

Fourteen years of state funding cuts to public schools helped set the stage for this debate. That’s why lawmakers on the funding committee pushed to increase funding going forward. The proposed formula adds $258 million to the amount the state budgeted for the 2016 fiscal year. That shrinks the $466 million austerity cut to $208 million if lawmakers amend the current budget that way next session. The committee recommends the Legislature add $209 million more when funds are available. Raising sufficient revenue to make that happen is not part of the recommendations.

Meanwhile, other state priorities will compete with efforts to find an extra $209 million in the state budget. And the state is underfunding its own school transportation formula by $180 million this school year. The state mandates school systems get students to and from school safely, so districts are forced to cover the shortfall with local tax revenue instead of using it for instruction.

Inflation also figures to eat into the value of future education dollars the state sends to districts under the proposed formula. It does not include an overall inflation adjustment.

The one area of the proposed formula where inflation is acknowledged is teacher compensation. Teacher compensation will no longer be tied to years of experience and education level under the commission’s plan. This eliminates the additional dollars districts receive to pay teachers each year, helping them offer an attractive salary. If approved the General Assembly will review teacher compensation each year and adjust it periodically as legislators deem appropriate. Given the legislature’s track record of infrequent reviews of the current funding formula, these adjustments could be few and far between.

Many educators agree 30-year-old state education funding formula is overdue for an overhaul. And providing district leaders with greater flexibility is a positive shift that can help them design strategies specific to the needs of their students. But funding must also be sufficient to meet students’ needs and align with the state’s expectations of them.

The ball is now in the governor’s court. He will decide on a direction to recommend to the General Assembly when it convenes in January. The commission’s last proposal seems to fall short of what is needed for student success.

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