Opinion: If there ever was a year to give more to schools, this is it

Credit: robert.andres@ajc.com

Credit: robert.andres@ajc.com

Fred A. Jones Jr. is the senior director of public policy and advocacy for the Southern Education Foundation, a 155-year-old education and civil rights organization based in Atlanta. In a guest column, Jones urges the General Assembly to tap into the state surplus to give more money to schools.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution Get Schooled blog asked Georgia advocates for children and schools to explain what they would like to see state lawmakers tackle — or avoid — this upcoming legislative session. Rather than a laundry list, we asked for specific recommendations and advice that they believe will improve children’s lives or student outcomes. This is the fourth of six guest columns.

You can find the others here.

By Fred A. Jones Jr.

Times have changed. Technology is changing the economy and workplace faster than ever. Child poverty has soared, and many families have suffered through serious economic and health-related stress in the past two years.

The needs of many students have changed, too. Still, Georgia has done little to adjust its school funding system in the past three decades.

The state’s funding formula simply does not account for the demands on today’s schools. That’s why many education leaders and advocates are pushing the state to establish an “opportunity weight” in the Quality Basic Education school funding formula for students who often need additional support — those living in low-income households, are learning English, or have disabilities that require additional services.

Credit: Contributed

Credit: Contributed

A long line of Georgia leaders has agreed. Then-Gov. Nathan Deal, a Republican, appointed a school funding commission that recommended a major overhaul to the state’s funding formula. Unfortunately, little was done in response.

This year, state leaders appear more open to these desperately needed changes. A state Senate study committee held hearings on the issue across Georgia last fall. I testified at the Savannah State University hearing that the state urgently needs a new school funding system.

Georgia is one of only six states failing to provide additional per-pupil funding for students from low-income families. We need this targeted funding to provide students with greater levels of support such as high-impact tutoring, quality after-school programs, and personalized learning (including individual graduation plans), all of which we know improves their long-term outcomes.

Our K-12 education system should prepare every student to meet the state’s goal of having all third graders meet grade-level expectations in reading and all fifth graders to meet math expectations. Right now, less than 25% of students meet those marks, according to the Georgia Governor’s Office of Student Achievement.

This year’s state results on the Nation’s Report Card showed similar results: Three out of four Black and Hispanic students in Georgia did not meet the proficient level in reading and math. The same was true for all students living in low-income families. Only about half of white students scored at that level, as well.

Students should graduate from high school ready for Georgia’s flagship university or to enter the workforce and earn a salary high enough to support a middle-class family. We are not there yet.

Strengthening our support of Georgia’s schools isn’t a partisan issue at all. I believe our leaders can work together on an issue of this importance. Research shows students with higher levels of education earn higher incomes, pay more taxes, enjoy better health and quality of life, are more likely to engage in civic affairs and volunteerism — and even live longer.

Advances in technology are forcing massive changes to our economy and in our communities. Consider all the high-tech manufacturing jobs coming to Georgia, many of which require two- and four-year college degrees or substantial training.

The state has come a long way, but still only about 37% of Georgia’s white working-age adults have a bachelor’s degree or higher — and only 25% of Black adults and 19% of Hispanic adults.

How would life in Georgia be different if we collectively decide to increase our investments in pre-K-12 schools?

• More extensive high-quality early childhood learning programs: Georgia was once a national leader in establishing strong pre-K programs, but only about 61% of the state’s 4-year-olds attend public preschool — a lower rate than in Florida and Oklahoma, for example. Too many children are behind in reading, numeracy, and social skills when they start school. The state also needs to adopt more proven strategies to serve more children from birth to age 3 and create parity in both pay and benefits for those in the early learning workforce.

• Develop excellent educators for every classroom: Many schools and districts, especially our neediest ones, struggle to retain excellent teachers. Educators still earn about 20% less than similar professionals in other fields, not to mention other factors in the shortages such as inadequate teacher preparation and support, and few efforts to add more diverse talent in the field.

• Develop more wraparound services and community schools: Everyone recognizes the need for more mental health, after-school programs, and other types of services in many schools. Investments in these integrated support services would pay off immeasurably.

Some naysayers claim the funding does not exist to make such investments in our public education system, but that claim does not hold water. The resources are there. The state is sitting on an incredible $6 billion surplus. If there ever was a year to make these investments in our future, this is it.

Other states are moving ahead of Georgia with record-setting new investments in education. Leaders in Tennessee and Maryland, for instance, are planning to add billions more dollars to improve public schools. North Carolina may be required to do the same after an important court decision there.

Most Georgians understand the need to invest in improving education for every family and community. Every one of us would reap the future rewards.