New report: Georgia programs for at-risk students overlook thousands

Researchers say funding is not well targeted to districts with the greatest need
Two researchers urge Georgia to drive more funds to address the impact of student poverty, especially in those districts serving high concentrations of students in need.

Two researchers urge Georgia to drive more funds to address the impact of student poverty, especially in those districts serving high concentrations of students in need.

In a report released this week, the Education Law Center says Georgia programs for at-risk students drastically underserve students who are not proficient on state assessments, and participation is inconsistent across districts.

In a guest column, Mary McKillip and Danielle Farrie, researchers at the center, urge Georgia to take action.

Based in New Jersey, the Education Law Center advocates for adequate and equitable school funding and civil rights protections of children and youth in schools.

Farrie maintains an education database and conducts analysis to support litigation and public policy for the center and partner organizations. McKillip leads ELC’s research examining the fairness of state funding systems through analyses of resource equity within states.

By Mary McKillip and Danielle Farrie

Georgia is one of only eight states that provides no additional funding to students in poverty through the state’s school funding formula. Extra funding is, however, made available to districts if students test below grade level on Georgia’s English Language Arts or mathematics tests.

This funding approach, called the Early Intervention (EIP) and Remedial Education Programs (REP), makes sense in theory. But our in-depth research shows the program is not reaching thousands of students across the state who are not performing at grade level and falling behind their peers.

Most alarming, we found an estimated 700,000 elementary, middle and high school students who are not proficient on ELA and math tests are not receiving funding through these programs. In fact, even the existing funding is not well targeted to the school districts with the most need. Our research shows that districts with lower student proficiency rates do not necessarily have higher rates of participation in the EIP/REP funding program.

We also found a major flaw in program design. Receipt of additional academic supports depends on students performing below grade level on ELA and math tests. This requirement penalizes successful programs because funding stops when students achieve a proficient score on the tests. This requirement undermines the goal of supporting struggling students to make continuous academic improvement from year-to-year.

There is a better way to serve Georgia’s vulnerable, at-risk student population. Our research shows a link between student poverty and a failure to achieve proficiency on state ELA and math tests. That’s why we recommend Georgia lawmakers reform the state finance formula by replacing EIP and REP funding with an “opportunity weight” to allocate funding based on student poverty, not test score results. This change would more effectively target funding to provide resources and interventions to students at-risk of falling behind or dropping out.

A funding increase for Georgia’s low-income students over the base amount through an opportunity weight of 0.5 – similar to poverty-based weights in other state school finance formulas – would boost funding for those students by 50%. And no district would be harmed.

For example, an opportunity weight of 0.5 would increase the per pupil funding for direct instruction in by an estimated $797 per pupil in Atlanta, $1,137 per pupil in Dougherty County, and $370 per pupil in Gwinnett County.

Three steps are necessary to make this change. First, an independent study should be commissioned to identify the research-proven interventions required for at-risk students and their cost.

Next, a funding level or “weight” must be determined and built into the finance formula. Finally, flexible but clear standards are needed to ensure school districts deliver robust help and support to their struggling students.

Transitioning to a properly funded, effective opportunity weight will have the long-term benefit of keeping academically vulnerable students on track for school success and graduation.

The Legislature has recently taken several positive steps to address over a decade of austerity cuts to K-12 education funding. These include fully funding the state's existing finance formulaapproving teacher pay raises, and boosting funds for mental health services in high schools.

But more can – and must – be done. Georgia ranks in the bottom quartile of states on public school funding. And there is an urgent need to drive more funds to address the impact of student poverty, especially in those districts serving high concentrations of students in need.

It’s time to for lawmakers to tackle the challenge of providing additional funding to deliver essential resources to Georgia’s most at-risk students. These students deserve no less.