I am at the first all-day meeting of the state’s new education finance review committee created by Gov. Nathan Deal and the Legislature — it is the sixth such blue ribbon committee since the state adopted the Quality Basic Education Funding Act in 1985.
The most recent committee labored four years and came up with district contracts for flexibility rather than a revised funding formula.
None of the other committees yielded any results, either. Speaking now is state House budget staff director John Brown, who leaves the Legislature after 25 years to join the Regents tomorrow. So, Brown is speaking with a remarkable degree of candor to the 20-member committee about the earlier failed efforts and the state of education in Georgia.
Brown blamed the failures of the other funding review committees on two factors: Governors who wanted only recommendations that were “revenue neutral,” and overly ambitious committee recommendations that were more “wish lists.”
And this may be the most candid comment of all that Brown made on the committee’s purpose:
“We are not going to come up with a formula that reaches for excellence. We are not putting an orchestra in every school. We are not going to be up there. We are going to create a formula so that every school system has enough money to get the basic job done.”
He said the most recent failed funding committee focused too much on best practices and attempted to base the formula on great practices it found in a few systems. Brown said that was a mistake.
“People like me have to have a funding formula,” he said. “There are some people who hate funding formulas but when you are talking about funding k-12 or higher ed or the technical colleges, you need some kind of enrollment-driven formula that provides a certain degree of predictability about how much you are going to have to work with. You can’t do individual budgets for 180 school systems and 2,500 schools. It is imperative to have some kind of enrollment-driven formula as at least one of the things you produce.”
“I am all for thinking out-of-the-box, doing some things different,” Brown said. “You don’t have to be wed to what is. ..but it is my belief that you cannot afford to go on a quest, hearing from many, many school systems in search of best practices in order to to build a formula. The formula has to be a common denominator. There has to be enough money so that any of the 180 school systems could adequately educate a child.”
Brown noted that out of school funding, 92 percent is salaries. Only 8 percent is operating costs. “I don’t believe this group wants to get heavily in teacher salaries,” said Brown.
At that point, state Sen. Fran Millar jumped in and said that teacher salaries and performance pay should be left alone until the results come back from the federal Race to the Top pilot programs, adding, “It’s always better to experiment with other people’s money.”
QBE is dramatically underfunding education in several areas, Brown said. The formula underfunds transportation, barely recognizes technology needs and has failed to keep up with maintenance and textbook costs. And he cited the $1.1 billion in austerity cuts to the formula, as well as $200 million in cuts to the equalization grants provided to help poor systems, from $600 million to $400 million.
In fact, Brown wondered if the lawsuit over insufficient funding by local systems had ever made it to court, which side would have won.
“I am not sure which way it would have gone,” Brown said. “When we make budget cuts, poor systems are less able to deal with the cuts than some of the larger systems. While the lawsuit was not an equity suit per se, we need to be mindful of putting enough money in the formula so that any school system, even the poorer ones, have enough money to educate children.”
“I wouldn’t waste my time with any issue that hasn’t got any reasonable hope of improving student outcome,” Brown said. “I have strong feelings that if we do this study and recommend additional money along the way, I hope for board members and local that it doesn’t become backdoor tax relief…that it would be used for millage decrease.”
Now, the entire committee is sharing ideas for cutting costs, including whether counties could share administrators, such as superintendents and assistant superintendents. Several mentioned that Georgia needs to consider multi-county partnerships. One member suggested that the state should do away with established class sizes.
As to critical needs, several members mentioned improving preschool and beefing up the k-3 years, which they called foundational. Members suggested looking at after-school programs, school nurses, parental outreach, graduation coaches, dual enrollment policies, school security, counselor staffing and data collection. To be data-driven, the state needs to make sure that there is quality control in data reporting. As schools are asked to report more data, they may not have the staff to do it well.
(There seems be a sense that school staffing is a mess — too few people in classrooms and too many in the central office.)
But Professional Standards Commission head and committee member Kelly Henson noted that most school systems have already slashed their administrative staffs, which has meant that more tasks have been pushed down to the school level.
If central office staff is cut even more as a result of the committee’s work, Henson cautioned, “We have to realize there are consequences to those reductions and we need to understand that.”
The committee is back from lunch and now discussing the funding relationship between the local systems and the state, an equation that increasingly is weighted on the local side as the state cuts its contribution to schools.
They are discussing the large disparity between the small rural southwest and southeast Georgia districts and wealthy metro districts. “We have to look at not only tweaking the formula but tearing it up and starting it over to provide the same quality of education for all students in Georgia,” said one member.
Talking about the reductions in the equalization grants to poor districts, L. C. Buster Evans, superintendent of Forsyth County Schools, said, “I would hope one of our early recommendations for the short-term would be to make up that difference, that $200 million shortfall in equalization for those districts.”
Millar raised questions over the entire funding structure, including the requirement that local systems kick in five mills of local tax dollars for their schools.
“From the standpoint of how we fund schools, we always say that if you don’t have 450 kids for an elementary school, you get penalized. But some communities can’t have 450 kids, depending on the community. What is the basis for how we are doing this? Why five mills? Why the school size numbers to get funding?”
Kelly Henson said the issue is getting money to kids in low-wealth districts, but there also has to be consideration of local effort and local will in school funding.
State Rep. Margaret Kaiser, D-Atlanta, who lives in Atlanta’s Grant Park, said that equitable funding is an issue in large districts, such as her own. “My children are zoned for a school in an old building, but our other choice is in an area of high wealth that is building a brand new school. I would like the committee’s conversation to go to the money that is flowing down.. we also should ask for a little accountability from the local systems in challenging them to look at schools that aren’t being utilized by their communities.”
Chair of the Senate ed committee, Millar said charter schools should be part of the equity and partnership discussions that the committee will have.
“What we are working on here is not just for today, but for the next 10 to 15 years,” Millar said. “The growth of school choice is here; we have to think about.”
His House counterpart Brooks Coleman, R-Duluth, said the committee could talk about choice without entering voucher territory. For instance, the committee could take up public school choice among districts, he said.
The discussion shifted here to the urgent need for innovation. Millar suggested that greater accountability was the wrong goal of the committee, that the real goal ought to be greater innovation.
“We can talk about the funding formula all day long,” said Millar. “But our academic performance in this state is mediocre at best.”
But Hank Huckaby, newly named chancellor of the Georgia University System, cautioned that innovation had to be tethered to real accountability when public funds were at stake. He earned a laugh when he noted that in some cases in Georgia, “Flexibility translated to long prison sentences.”
Evans, the Forsyth superintendent, urged discussion of federal funds, noting that federal dollars only account for one percent of his system’s funding, yet the feds control about 25 percent of what is required.
Coleman said the committee ought to look at mandates from the accreditation agency SACS as well. And he said the committee has to delve into the “scholarships” created by the Legislature that take funds out of public education, including the special education voucher and the $50 million private school scholarship tax credits
Henson is now speaking. “We do need a robust discussion about school choice relative to charters, magnet schools and everything else. But I will go ahead and give you my bias. I am opposed to giving one penny of taxpayer money to private schools. I think it is wrong. I am sorry that we ever did it. And I am doubly sorry that we did it without providing any accountability on those folks.”
(I am going to give you my bias. In my many years of reporting on education in Georgia, I have never met anyone as clear-headed, smart and honest about education as Kelly Henson. I would like to see him run DOE someday. I think he is willing to speak the truth and suffer the consequences. )
Now, the committee is wrapping up with final observations. Committee member and former state school board member James Bostic wants education majors taught math in the math department of their colleges and universities. He wants science taught to future teachers in the science department. He thinks that will improve their content knowledge.
Millar asked Chancellor Huckaby to look into overhauling teacher education, and he agreed to do so.
Coleman is now setting up the subcommittees that will begin meeting in earnest this summer. The next meeting of the full committee is Aug. 25 in Tucker. (I will post info as this would be a good meeting to attend.)
–From Maureen Downey, for the AJC Get Schooled blog