The AJC has a story today that will not surprise local boards of education: For the first time in 16 years, local governments paid a higher share of the cost of public education than state governments.
In 2010, Georgia’s public schools received about 38 percent of their funding from the state, with local government paying about 48 percent. Federal and private sources accounted for the rest, according to the census report. In the past, the split has been about 55 state and 45 local.
The policy question now becomes: How much input should the state have in local education decisions and practices when it pays only 38 percent of the freight and less in high spending districts such as Decatur and Atlanta?
That has been the crux of the charter school battle: Should the state overrule local boards of education — which, in theory, represent the local voters and local taxpayers — and approve charter schools that then draw local funds?
It is always important to note in these discussions that the local money that underwrites schools does not come only from families with children in the schools. It comes from the entire community, childless couples, retirees and singles. I never understand the posters who come on the blog and insist that “It’s the parents’ money.”
Very few property owners in this state pay enough in property taxes to cover the full cost of educating even a single child; it requires a community pooling of resources to fund education.
According to the AJC:
Across the country, 44 percent of public education cost is covered by local governments, with the state paying 43.5 percent and the federal government paying 12.5 percent.
Georgia’s public primary and secondary schools got about 38 percent of their funding from the state, with local government paying about 48 percent. Federal and private sources accounted for the rest, according to the census report, which covers the year 2010.
Taxpayers feed both local and state coffers, but the size of those coffers is vastly different. The shift to more reliance on local government has many believing that the squeeze school districts have faced in recent years is not merely cyclical but a new normal.
“This is huge, ” Georgia Board of Education member Wanda Barrs said during a discussion about public education finances last week. “We are where we’ve never been before.”
The economic downturn reduced state revenue and led to budget cuts in multiple areas, including education. That left districts to rely more on local funding. Many districts, however, are seeing that local funding diminish because it is pegged to property taxes, and property values have sunk.
Legislators said public education has taken a hit in recent years. But so has the rest of state government, they argued.
“State revenue has gone down across the board, ” said state Sen. Fran Millar, chairman of the Georgia Senate’s Education and Youth Committee. “We have reduced funding for education the least. They’ve suffered the least cuts.”
Millar said district officials need to be more willing to make unpopular and difficult choices. “They’re going to have to look at raising millage rates, ” Millar said, adding that districts will also need to consider salary reductions and shrinking central-office staffs.
“There are no easy answers here, ” Millar said. “We don’t have the luxuries we once had. Some of these local systems, they need a reality check.”
Many officials in those districts don’t share that opinion. DeKalb County Schools just completed a long, painful budget process that underscored the tough choices districts face and the tough politics behind those choices. Lay off or furlough teachers? Increase class sizes? Increase tax rates?
“It’s frightening, ” said Eugene Walker, chairman of the DeKalb County School Board. “It’s getting worse. We have increased costs and decreased revenue.”
Walker pointed out that, in 2008-2009, one mill of property tax brought in $22 million. Now, after property values have been hammered in the bad economy, a mill is worth $16 million. That’s a 27 percent drop over four years.
–From Maureen Downey, for the AJC Get Schooled blog