I wrote a live blog out of the state Education Finance Study Commission meeting yesterday, but wanted to write a second piece today that offered a bit more perspective.
The newly formed committee of educators, lawmakers and business leaders is supposed to produce initial recommendations for the Legislature in January, and others for the 2013 session.
The commission seems serious about reforming the education funding formula, although its first swipe targeted, as many members admitted, “the low-hanging fruit.” I find that reassuring since every other effort has failed, usually because the conclusion — schools need more money — was not politically viable.
The funding formula and the state law governing schools are outdated in many instances, including their lack of recognition of technology and its pivotal role in education today.
In fact, state School Superintendent John Barge held up a copy of the 374-page Title 20 in which he had placed flags on material that he said “was outdated, was language that was no longer applicable or relevant, things that could be helpful to change or helpful to eliminate and things that just do not apply any more.” There were dozens of flagged sections.
The commission is truly bipartisan, best illustrated by the invitation to Joe Martin, Barge’s Democratic opponent for school chief last year, to speak on how to best reform the formula. The commission allotted Martin an hour for his presentation, reflective of his expertise in school funding. Martin helped write the Quality Basic Education Act in the early 1980s. His inclusion was all the more extraordinary because Martin led a consortium of rural school districts that sued the state over how it funded schools.
I credit the open-mindedness of the commission to its co-chairs, legislators Brooks Coleman of Gwinnett and Fran Millar of DeKalb. Millar, in particular, is a frank guy who says what is on his mind. (See earlier blog on his “moron” comment at the meeting yesterday.)
The commission also has lots of smart people on it, including Kelly Henson, who heads the Professional Standards Commission and is a former school chief. It also has business leader Jim Bostic, who is an upfront guy with a lot to offer.
The commission has created subgroups to delve into individual areas, and those groups came back with some common-sense proposals after their first go-around, including ditching the 65 percent classroom spending rule, restoring school nurses and revamping capital outlay formulas that hurt smaller districts.
But the hard part is ahead: How should Georgia fund its schools at the building level? Can the money follow the child across district lines when we have some communities where the locals dig very deep to augment the money invested in education by the state?
What can the state do about districts that lack the political will to fund schools to a level required for adequacy, never mind excellence?
If, as Martin says, the state should pay for a foundational education for every child, what is that foundation?
What does it mean today to give a child an educational foundation? Does it mean foreign language and advanced math? Does it mean art and music?
People complain that zip code now determines school quality, but shouldn’t a community be allowed to tax itself more if it wants better schools for its children?
Again, people hold Decatur out as an example of a school system that works, but a key component is that the property owners of Decatur pay far higher taxes than anyone else in the state to support their small schools and ambitious programs.
Should a district be allowed to look at the funding floor provided by the state and elevate it dramatically so that their students get much more than children a county or two over?
Should metro schools continue to outpace most of the schools in the state because their taxpayers can either afford to pay more toward education or are willing to pay more because they have a greater belief in the value of education?
In other words, if the state funds a cabin, can a local community use its own resources to build a mansion?
And within a single system, should a school blessed with dedicated and financially able parents be allowed to add more teachers or programs because those parents are willing to pay for them out of their pockets?
These are questions being asked around the country, and I don’t have the answers as I can see both sides. I think it’s a mistake to discourage parents from giving to their schools, but I also have seen communities where one or two schools become the envy of the rest of the system because of exceptional parental support, creating a sense of two worlds within the same system. (This has been a problem in New York City, where parents wanted to pool their own money and hire more teachers to bring back classes cut by the district.)
–from Maureen Downey, for the AJC Get Schooled blog