The all-day meeting of the Education Finance Study Commission just kicked off at the Capitol with a lighthearted aside by co-chair and state Rep. Brooks Coleman of Gwinnett: “We may have to have a bake sale — we need lots of money.”
After four hours of testimony, Coleman is right. The members have offered up several reforms and changes, but most require new funding at a time when the state has little extra cash.
The day features detailed reports from the subcommittees — in between legislators dashing across the street to the House and Senate chambers for votes during the General Assembly special session under way. (The committee is a mix of people, including lawmakers, state officials, educators and business leaders.)
Early on, the committee heard about the importance of investing in technology and leadership.
Committee co-chair and state Sen. Fran Millar of DeKalb noted that Gwinnett invests a million dollars a year to train principals at its academy and that might be a model for other systems.
“Most of us agree that the key to a good school is you have to have a good leader, a good principal. It’s probably an area we have not spent enough money on, but I think this is very, very critical,” said Millar. “There is probably nothing worse for a teacher than to walk in and have some moron running their school.”
State school chief John Barge took the floor to talk about compliance changes that his subcommittee recommends, starting with repealing the state’s 65 percent spending law, passed by the Legislature amid much criticism in 2006.
The 65 percent spending idea was a favorite of the national GOP at the time, and the law mandated that Georgia systems invest at least 65 percent of their revenues in classroom instruction, but narrowly defined what constituted classroom. The formula did not count funds spent on maintenance, teacher training, transportation, counselors, nurses, food services or media specialists
I was an editorial writer in 2006, and the AJC opposed the bill, noting that there was no evidence that the 65 percent mandate led to higher student achievement. It was one of those bills that sounded great, but created unnecessary hurdles and paperwork.
Barge said that the law made no difference in achievement, and that only 56 of 180 school systems are now in compliance. “There is no statistical evidence that this has made any impact on increasing student achievement in Georgia,” he said.
Millar admitted that he presented the bill back in 2006 on behalf of then Gov. Sonny Perdue. “I presented this bill for the governor and then I went to the hospital with a heart attack,” he said. “The operation worked, even though this bill seems to be a failure.”
Barge said Georgia is the only state still under a 65 percent spending mandate. (The two others that adopted similar laws have already repealed it.) The committee voted to recommend repeal of the law.
Barge also recommended that the state change the homeschooling reporting requirements, which now mandate that parents report their intention to home school and then their child’s monthly attendance to their local school superintendent. Barge wants parents to be able to report electronically to the DOE via its website, thus freeing up local schools from the bookkeeping and reporting.
Sen. Jack Hill, R-Reidsville, led the foundational funding formula subcommittee as to technology and textbooks. His committee has not adopted any recommendations yet so he gave a summation of what his committee has covered.
While many systems are using technology, Hill said, “We’ve got systems still using textbooks and old technology and don’t have the ability to even put in new technology due to bandwidth issues.”
He said it was common knowledge that the state is under funding textbooks – funding them at $27 a year per child while the actual cost is $72 a year. So while the state provides $42 million a year, systems are spending $114 million.
Under current funding, the state is paying for two to three books per child every seven years. And there is no funding for technology in the current school funding formula.
“Children today are technologically savvy,” said Hill. “The secondary thing is that their interest level is so high when they are involved in technology. It is possible with middle school kids that this will keep the kids involved and plugged in.”
Among the committee’s ideas:
1. Increase funding to underwrite basic technology. “We want to lean toward some sort of basic technology goal in each system of the state. Many are past that point but we need to establish basics of technology for every classroom in the state,” said Hill.
2. Use state matching grants to incentivize systems to invest in technology. Also, use five-year bonds to fund infrastructure for bandwidth.
3. Provide state help to systems that haven’t developed strategic plans on technology use in their classrooms.
State school chief John Barge said some systems are using 14-year-old textbooks, adding, “Our students are using and learning from information that is not current.”
Kelley Henson just shared his support services subcommittee’s report on school nurses. The committee recommends funding for one nurse per 750 elementary schoolchildren and 1 per 1,500 middle and high school students. Right now, Georgia has one nurse for every 2,300 students. The full committee endorsed this recommendation, along with one for some funding for nursing supplies so PTAs aren’t force to buy the bandages.
“To be frank, I would be scared to death to operate a school system without quality school nurses,” said committee member and Forsyth County schools superintendent L.C. Buster Evans.
–From Maureen Downey, for the AJC Get Schooled blog