School funding: Fix budget basics first

By the AJC Editorial Board

The state education chief is right to forcefully note that chronic underfunding of public schools should be fixed before Georgia recreates commission to let state approve, fund charter schools.

Every school system in Georgia is feeling the effects of eight years of budget cuts.

Across metro Atlanta, class sizes have soared, and parents are confronting fourth grades with 34 students. In Cobb, the school board increased class sizes by an average of two students and cut back on library services. DeKalb cut performing arts teachers.

The districts have obeyed edicts from the Gold Dome that schools do more with less. But less has turned into less and less as lawmakers have refused to stanch the cuts.

Lawmakers have to recognize that low-tax states often have education results to match. Spending data from the state Department of Education shows that Georgia is unacceptably disinvesting in education:

● Since 2003, at least $5 billion earned through the Quality Basic Education formula funding has been withheld from Georgia’s students.

● Since 2008, Georgia has added 37,438 students to its public school rolls while cutting 4,280 teachers.

● This has led to students in two-thirds of school districts (121 out of 180) having shortened school years – ranging from 144 to 179 days – as well as pay cuts for thousands of Georgia teachers in the form of furlough days.

That dire straits for public schools led to a stunning announcement from Republican School Superintendent John Barge earlier this month. He would not support the constitutional amendment on the Nov. 6 ballot recreating a state commission to approve and fund charter schools, an amendment endorsed by the leadership of his party.

“Until all of our public school students are in school for a full 180-day school year, until essential services like student transportation and student support can return to effective levels, and until teachers regain jobs with full pay for a full school year, we should not redirect one more dollar away from Georgia’s local school districts – much less an additional $430 million in state funds, which is what it would cost to add seven new state charter schools per year over the next five years, the annual average of the Charter Commission that would be revived if the amendment passes,” he said.

Barge’s principled stance is rooted in hard fiscal reality. The General Assembly should heed his counsel and begin rebuilding an adequate funding base for the schools that educate nine of 10 Georgia children. Truly reforming Georgia’s fractured state tax system would be a good start.

Also, Barge’s focus on costs of a charter school commission has been lost in an unrelated debate on the merit of charter schools. Barge is not arguing against charter schools. As he points out, Georgia has 110 charter schools and more opening every year, almost all of which are under the imprimatur of local boards of education.

The school chief is fighting the addition of another education obligation to the Georgia constitution when the state is currently failing its primary obligation in the Constitution to support k-12 education.

In theory, the state funding formula, adopted in 1985, allots enough money to communities so that they can — with a small local tax supplement — provide an adequate basic education to students. In reality, the state formula is outdated, grossly underestimating the cost of textbooks, facilities maintenance and student transportation. It doesn’t address technology needs at all. To attract and keep teachers, virtually all systems augment the state wage.

Historically, the state had paid about 55 to 60 percent of real costs of education while local communities paid about 40 percent. Today, the state is only footing 37.8 percent of the education tab in Georgia, with local government paying about 48 percent. Federal and private sources accounted for the rest, according to a new U.S. Census report. It’s important to note that one percentage point represents well over $100 million.

Districts are being forced to rely more on local funding, but the desolation of local property values has made that a dead end for many systems, especially in rural Georgia.

DOE once described the state’s education budget as having been cut to the bone. Now, says spokesman Matt Cardoza, “We say it’s been cut through the bone.”

We should do better, for our students and our future.

Maureen Downey, 
for the Editorial Board.

Charter schools: A good investment for Georgia

By Chip Rogers

“If you think education is expensive, try ignorance” — Derek Bok, Harvard University President

Regardless of where one falls on the political spectrum, it is widely accepted that investing in education is wise. Yet to measure one’s commitment to education exclusively through the lens of government spending is like suggesting a plant’s growth is solely a function of how much water you pour on it. All the water in the world won’t make a plant grow if it’s not rooted in proper soil.

Learning is an individual experience. Even the best school in Georgia has students not learning to their full potential. It’s wonderful when a community has a great school, but that doesn’t mean it works for every child living in that specific attendance zone.

If we are truly committed to a Georgia where education is a priority, we must make it so for every student. The only way to accomplish this is through educational freedom or choice.

Imagine if the Georgia Bulldogs were ranked 48th nationally this season. Marc Richt would be in trouble. Now imagine if the Dogs had been ranked 45th to 48th for 20 years. Richt would no longer be employed, and rightfully so. Yet, this is where Georgia students have been ranked nationally in SAT scores and high school dropout rates for a generation. Yet, those who have overseen this catastrophe tell us not to worry, just send more money.

Georgia voters will soon determine whether we join most of the rest of America in providing a measure of educational freedom through the creation of state-chartered public schools.

These public schools will provide additional educational options and do so at considerable taxpayer savings.

Recent statements from the educational bureaucracy, on the cost of charter schools, highlight why the public so distrusts government. These bureaucrats, in a shameful attempt at self-preservation, simply won’t level with Georgia voters.

The math is simple. State chartered schools will receive considerably less per pupil funding than traditional public schools. This means every student who enrolls, by choice, in a public charter school represents a savings. What does this mean in real dollars?

With voter approval, based on 2012 funding, traditional public schools will receive average per pupil funding of $8,993. Public charter schools will receive average per pupil funding of $5,446 per student. This represents a total savings for Georgia taxpayers of $3,447 per student. Put another way, if every student were funded at public charter school levels the savings would be in excess of $2 billion annually.

Public charter schools represent a win/win; more educational options at a lower cost. Only those determined to protect the status quo could be opposed. Georgia’s children deserve better.

Chip Rogers, R-Woodstock, is majority leader of the Georgia Senate.

Move unneeded 
for charter schools

By John Barge

I believe education is the “great equalizer,” because no matter where you live, what racial or socio-economic subgroup you fall into, or what level of education your parents completed, you can take your education and become whatever you want to be.

In order for our schools to be that equalizer, we must provide the resources called for in law. The Georgia Constitution states, “The provision of an adequate public education for the citizens shall be a primary obligation of the State of Georgia.”

Since 2003, at least $5 billion earned through the Quality Basic Education formula funding has been withheld from Georgia’s students. This has led to students in two-thirds of school districts (121 out of 180) having shortened school years – ranging from 144 to 179 days – as well as pay cuts for thousands of Georgia teachers in the form of furlough days. Since 2008 alone, 4,423 teachers have been laid off, leading to larger class sizes.

Even though I am a strong advocate of charter schools, I recently took a lot of heat for opposing the constitutional amendment on charter schools that will appear on the Nov. 6 ballot. I fully support charter schools, but I do not believe we should divert scarce state dollars to create a new government agency when our schools are suffering. The additional funding that would go to state charter schools is more than what 60 of our school districts spend per student, including local revenue.

Local school districts and the state board of education are already empowered to authorize charter schools. So, rather than changing the constitution to include another authorizer – as the amendment would do if it passes – we should focus on fulfilling the constitutional obligation we have by funding our current schools, including existing charter schools. Until every student is in class for 180 days and every teacher is earning full pay, we should not hand pick where we will send “new” money for education.

It’s easy to take shots at our public schools and say they aren’t performing well. Most people like to point to our low ranking on the SAT, but what they fail to recognize is that Georgia tests more than 80 percent of its students, whereas most high-ranking states test fewer than 10 percent. If you look at Advanced Placement results – given by the same company that administers the SAT – you will find Georgia ranked 13th in the nation in the percentage of students passing the exam. Even better, our African-American students rank second in the nation on that exam. Why not point to that progress? The answer is because it doesn’t support their criticisms.

If we say that a quality education system is the state’s best economic development tool, then we should fund it. Providing for our students now is an investment in our state’s current and future success. I don’t want to just give our students an “adequate” education, as the Georgia Constitution requires; I want to give them an education that allows them to be whatever they dream of being when they leave us.


John Barge is Georgia state school superintendent.

32 comments Add your comment

Mike Baker

August 27th, 2012
2:29 pm

I would think someone at this level of Government would know that UGA’s head coach is Mark not Marc

SmartK12Funding

August 27th, 2012
12:35 pm

Transparency. Equity. Efficiency. Accountability.

The Smarter Funding, Better Outcomes initiative is currently investigating how GA schools receive and spend education dollars. I invite you to connect with us @ smartk12funding.com and receive the report when it is released in a month or so. Maureen’s headline is accurate – School funding: Fix budget basics first. We are the only ones conducting such an investigation, and doing so with outside, expert counsel.