Georgia schools to get $2 billion in federal stimulus

Deborah Clinkscales, assistant principal, directs students to maintain social distance as students wearing masks arrive to Jackson Elementary School in Lawrenceville for the first day of school amid the coronavirus outbreak on Wednesday, Aug. 26, 2020. Students are required to wear masks. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)
Deborah Clinkscales, assistant principal, directs students to maintain social distance as students wearing masks arrive to Jackson Elementary School in Lawrenceville for the first day of school amid the coronavirus outbreak on Wednesday, Aug. 26, 2020. Students are required to wear masks. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Georgia schools will share a $2 billion financial boost from Washington as part of the coronavirus relief package approved over the holidays.

Schools will have considerable discretion in spending the money, though former U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, in an undated letter presumably drafted before she resigned Thursday, urged them to spend some of it on reopening classrooms.

The allocation is equal to about a fifth of the nearly $10 billion state budget for K-12 education this school year, which was cut 10% along with the rest of state government as the pandemic shut down the economy last year.

“That’s a significant influx of money,” said Matt Jones, chief of staff for state school Superintendent Richard Woods, who oversees the state agency that will distribute the money. The Georgia Board of Education is expected to formally accept the money Thursday. Woods’ Department of Education can then begin sending at least $1.7 billion to school districts, withholding up to $189 million for its own pandemic-related programs.

Gov. Brian Kemp will get another $126 million for K-12 education, with $79 million earmarked for private schools. That money is part of a $4 billion package for governors to spend on education at their discretion.

Congress approved the funding late last month, and President Donald Trump signed it into law on Dec. 27. It provides $54.3 billion for schools nationally.

Georgia public schools have been squeezed between a nearly $950 million state budget cut for the current school year and the as-yet-untallied costs related to COVID-19. They’ve bought masks and cleaning supplies, distributed laptops and internet hotspots and hired additional teachers or substitutes.

Some observers worry that teachers stressed by both an added workload and fear of infection may leave the profession.

“The cumulative effect might just be the wearing-out of a large part of the workforce. I know that school leaders are concerned about that,” said Stephen Owens, with the Georgia Budget & Policy Institute, a group that tracks funding of government services. “A lot of school districts are going to try to mitigate that harm by providing hazard pay or incentives to stay around.”

The money will be allocated to school districts based on the proportion of their enrollment that is considered low-income.

Some worry the federal funding will relieve pressure on the state to restore its own education funding cuts. But House Appropriations Chairman Terry England, R-Auburn, said the federal money is a one-time cash infusion for “extraordinary” pandemic costs and won’t necessarily make up for the state cuts to core services.

“So I don’t know that it lessens any pressure from our side,” England said.

It’s also unclear whether state revenues have rebounded enough to restore the cuts, he said. Kemp is expected to release his budget next week. The state DOE said Friday that funding for teacher pay and benefits is among its legislative priorities this year.

Kemp campaigned on a $5,000 teacher pay raise, a promise partially fulfilled in 2019 when the Legislature approved a $3,000 bump in pay. Last winter, Kemp pushed to complete his pledge, but then the pandemic changed priorities.

The issue lingers, though. With a generation of teachers retiring, the state faces a looming crisis, said Stephen Pruitt, a former Kentucky state education commissioner and the current president of the Southern Regional Education Board based in Atlanta. The pandemic may accelerate the trend, he said, adding that higher pay could help keep and recruit teachers.

The research and consulting organization for Georgia and 15 other states says teachers are underpaid relative to other professions. The group recently calculated take-home pay for teachers in its member states after accounting for their out-of-pocket costs for health insurance and pension contributions. Average net pay in Georgia ranges from $25,535 for first-year teachers to $51,971 for those with 35 years of experience.

“We already have a shortage and now we have fewer people going into teacher preparation,” Pruitt said. In the short term, he said, lawmakers could consider less costly means than a pay raise to bolster morale, such as increased support for teacher training.

In the long term, though, low pay will undermine staffing, particularly for teachers with high-demand specialties. It’s already happening: “It’s awfully hard to find a chemistry and physics teacher when you get outside of the suburbs,” he said.

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