Opinion: No money for priority schools yet lawmakers find $17 million for charters

Janet Kishbaugh is co-chair of the Georgia Coalition for Public Education, formerly the Committee to Keep Georgia Schools Local.

In this commentary, Kishbaugh questions the lack of adequate funding for Gov. Nathan Deal’s signature initiative, state turnaround schools.

While the state says it can’t come up with more funding for turnaround coaches in the first set of schools chosen for the turnaround efforts, it’s found more money for state charter schools, she says.

By Janet Kishbaugh

In 2017, following the defeat of Gov. Nathan Deal’s proposed Opportunity School District, the Georgia Legislature passed the First Priority Act, legislation aimed at working with schools and communities to improve outcomes in the state’s most struggling schools. However, the Legislature has failed to fund this initiative.

When enacted last year, the First Priority Act came without designated line-item funding in the budget, but supporters anticipated that the FY 2019 budget would allocate the necessary dollars; unfortunately, this was not the case. The Governor’s FY 2019 budget allocates no funds to hire qualified candidates to serve as the law’s prescribed “turnaround coaches,” crucial positions identified in the legislation.

Instead of funding the work of their much-heralded “First Priority Act,” members of the House Education Committee have chosen to support HB 787, a bill which proposes to increase state funding for state charter schools. The fiscal note on this bill indicates the annual cost will be $17 million. The bill’s supporters claim that this money will come from unallocated general funds.

The question is, how has the request to increase funding for state charters suddenly taken precedence over the need for funding assistance to First Priority schools?

Ironically, at the very moment that the House Education Committee was voting to give more money to state charter schools, Dr. Eric Thomas, the chief turnaround officer hired to lead school improvement under the First Priority Act, was across the street, updating the State Board of Education on the need for funds to do the critical work he was brought here to do.

Dr. Thomas named 11 schools in five school districts to participate in the First Priority Act program in its first year. He reported he lacks sufficient funds to attract qualified candidates to become “turnaround coaches” in each of the 11 schools. The turnaround coaches are crucial to identifying the needs and assets of the communities in which the 11 schools sit.

While Dr. Thomas is seeking grant money to cover the work, he said he needs matching funds from the state, funds which have not been budgeted.

The initial 11 First Priority schools, like all public schools in Georgia, have suffered more than a decade of austerity cuts to state funding totaling over $1 billion in budget cuts. In the FY 2019 budget public schools remain underfunded by $167 million.

The schools that Dr. Thomas has begun to work with serve impoverished areas where the austerity cuts have hit hardest.

If, in fact, our representatives believe there is an extra $17 million in the state coffers that can be spent on education, this money should go to provide the resources necessary to implement the First Priority Act or, alternatively, to reduce the austerity cuts affecting all public schools, including state charters.

In asking for more money for charter schools, Speaker Pro Tem Jan Jones, R-Milton, explained, "Some people say money doesn't matter, but you have to have enough."

The First Priority Act does not “have enough.”

Where will the state’s priorities lie – will our representatives provide the resources necessary to help struggling schools or will they instead allocate more money to state charters?

The voters of Georgia will be watching, just as they did in the 2016 Opportunity School District battle, to see if representatives truly make serving struggling schools with community-centered strategies their FIRST PRIORITY.