Opinion: Proposed K-12 budget in Georgia would end austerity cuts

Advocates: Governor’s plan is strong reprieve from decades of underfunding

The best news for public education in Gov. Brian Kemp’s proposed 2022-2023 state budget is the elimination of the deep austerity cuts that have occurred in 18 of the last 20 years. The most recent austerity cut shorted Georgia public schools by $383 million.

“Preliminarily, the governor’s proposed budget is very encouraging with elimination of the austerity cut and his proposal to provide the additional $2,000 to fulfill the promise of a $5,000 teacher pay raise,” said Claire Suggs, senior legislative policy analyst for the Professional Association of Georgia Educators.

Stephen Owens, senior policy analyst of the Georgia Budget & Policy Institute, agreed.

“This proposal represents a huge step forward in making schools whole,” he said. “The pay raises will get the most press, and rightly so.”

But he’s excited to see $188 million for school buses in the amended budget because it will help alleviate pressure on that growing cost.

“It will also come as a welcome surprise to school leaders that Gov. Kemp’s budget not only ends the future budget cuts to K-12 schools but fills in the current cut as well in the amended,” Owens said.

Kemp is also proposing a $1,000 bonus for bus drivers in the amended fiscal year 2022 budget and a 5.4% pay increase for them in fiscal year 2023. Now, the state gives $9,384 for bus driver salaries.

“Districts are spending considerably more than that in trying to attract and keep these important employees,” said Suggs.

Across Georgia, parents describe frustrating bus delays with their children not arriving home from school until 5 p.m. as drivers shoulder extra routes. “This is not just a financial problem, this is a problem for kids,” said Suggs.

While milder than previous COVID-19 variants, omicron is much more infectious, depleting the ranks of classroom teachers. With soaring demand for and low supply of substitute teachers, districts have been forced to combine classes, dispatch central office staff to classrooms or revert to remote learning.

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Alas, the budget doesn’t address the dearth of substitute teachers, for which the state now allows $150 per teacher per year. That amount is supposed to underwrite substitutes for five days at $30 a day, an amount well below the market rate in metro Atlanta. To attract subs amid the pandemic, Cherokee is paying $150 a day, Fulton is paying $175 and Cobb $189.

Owens said the state’s funding formula still ignores low-income students. “There are still student needs that have not been addressed in our state funding formula, like the fact that Georgia is one of only eight states that does not provide additional funds to educate students living in poverty, but this budget represents a strong reprieve from decades of underfunding.”