Opinion: Georgia students living in poverty left behind in Kemp’s plan

Policy analyst: Georgia must provide additional funding for kids living in poverty

Credit: TNS

Credit: TNS

In a guest column, Stephen Owens, a senior policy analyst with the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute, dissects Gov. Brian Kemp’s proposed education budget.

Owens previously was a research and data analyst at the Georgia Department of Education. He holds a doctorate from the University of Georgia.

By Stephen Owens

This session has the potential to be both the best and worst of times for the state’s public education system. On one hand, if Gov. Brian Kemp’s proposed budget passes, Georgia’s schools are set to receive hundreds of millions more dollars from the state. On the other, students are navigating learning in the middle of a pandemic while members of the public scrutinize classroom materials and school safety decisions and attempt to ban theories that have zero evidence of existing in the K-12 space. All the while, some lawmakers continue to push voucher bills that would siphon public funds into private schools.

Gov. Kemp’s proposed budget for fiscal year 2023, which begins July 1, 2022, takes the critical first step of restoring recent cuts to school funding. This proposal marks a return to baseline funding but still lacks essential investments to boost outcomes for Georgia’s learners.

Stephen Owens is a senior education policy analyst at the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute.

Credit: GBPI

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Credit: GBPI

The budget proposal provides Georgia’s public schools $10.7 billion, a $493 million increase above current funding. This addition would end budget cuts (called “austerity”) to the Quality Basic Education formula, the state’s metric to determine necessary funding to K-12 public schools. The proposal for fiscal year 2023 also includes funding for teacher pay raises, even as districts have discretion on how to spend the additional money.

These pay raises could support teacher retention, particularly in areas with high turnover. Due at least in part to a lack of resources, attrition is highest in districts that are majority-Black and serve more students living in poverty. The amended fiscal year 2022 budget includes bonuses for bus drivers and significant funding to replace 1,747 outdated buses.

There is much to celebrate about the boost to education funding in the proposed budget, but school funding is still woefully lacking in Georgia. Before the governor released his budget proposal, the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute released our annual “State of Education Funding” report highlighting opportunities to better support students and schools.

Georgia has fallen behind and is one of only six states that does not provide funding for schools to educate students living in poverty. Gov. Nathan Deal’s Education Reform Commission suggested a policy to provide this additional funding in 2015, but legislation has yet to pass. This missing piece harms all students as schools continue to operate with more needs than resources. Adequate funding for these students would flow to every district in the state, but level the playing field for those districts that serve more students living in poverty.

For example, in Georgia’s Black Belt — a swath of rural counties with a high concentration of Black students and students living in poverty — students have fewer AP courses available. Fifteen school districts in the Black Belt did not have a single student take an AP course in 2018. Were Georgia to join 46 other states in creating an “Opportunity Weight,” or provide this additional money in the school funding formula, these districts could be better prepared to provide not only AP materials, but also more school nurses or counselors. Although the proposed budget restores cuts, it does not include this critical policy.

Opportunities to support necessary non-certified school staff, like substitute teachers, are also not included in the budget. Unlike the retirement system for teachers, the system for non-certified staff, the Public School Employees Retirement System, does not consider cost of living or staff salary. Georgia is in the minority among our neighbor states by separating school employees into different pension systems. Janitors, custodial, transportation and maintenance staff must instead be a part of this “supplemental” pension with a much smaller benefit. Small investments in PSERS would have an outsized impact on these staff, who are more likely to be people of color than teachers.

The budget is far from a done deal, and state lawmakers continue to entertain bills that would funnel public funds to private schools like the new House Bill 999. The House and then the Senate will soon have the opportunity to change and vote on this budget proposal. With a record surplus of state dollars and money sent to Georgia from the federal government, there is no excuse to reject full school funding or additional opportunities to support students, like additional funding for students in poverty.