Deal says he’ll back changes to education funding formula if re-elected

Deal said he will push to rewrite the Quality Basic Education Act, a 1985 law meant to narrow the gap between wealthier school districts and their poorer, rural counterparts. He said school systems have relied too long on an outdated formula that hasn’t changed with the times.

The pledge was cheered by superintendents across the state, including several gathered in Athens for a conference this week. Many were skeptical, though, because they had heard such promises before.

The governor said his plan for changing the formula is still in the works, but that he expected to devote a chunk of his political capital toward the overhaul in 2015.

“It’s a long-range problem that we have to look at,” Deal said. “We keep running into things that are still in a 1985 statute, and it’s been a problem from the beginning. I don’t know if it’s ever been fully funded.”

He added: “The funding still relies on a 1985 formula. Just think what it would be like if we still transported kids to school in 1985 school buses.”

At the conference, superintendents swapped grim tales of teacher furloughs, larger class sizes and staff reductions through attrition. To help balance their budgets, and drive the budget shortfalls home to voters, some even called for districts to scale back on athletic programs, surely an attention-grabber in football-mad Georgia.

“The law doesn’t say anything about Friday night football,” said Allen Fort, superintendent of schools in southwest Georgia’s Quitman County. “But it does say we have to teach math.”

The formula assigns the amount of state money districts should get based on the number of students in a district and those students’ needs. Districts also get money from the federal government and local property taxes, but state funding accounts for nearly half their budgets.

As state leaders juggle the needs of K-12 education with other priorities, the school funding formula has often been short-changed. Over the past decade, including budget surplus years and others clouded by the Great Recession, the state held back nearly $8 billion in so-called “austerity” cuts. Education officials have called on the state to “fully fund” the formula, to at least give districts all that the formula calls for districts to get.

In addition to austerity cuts, depressed property values during the economic downturn meant districts generated less money through local property taxes, and the state caps those tax rates. The resulting squeeze has not relented, superintendents say, even as state revenues have begun to climb.

“Since 2003, we’ve had $42 million in austerity cuts,” said Morris Leis, superintendent in Coffee County Schools in southeast Georgia. “We’ve had to increase class sizes. We’ve had to reduce the number of administrators. We’ve had to reorganize our bus service, reduce support personnel. We’ve reduced the number of teachers.”

Critics of the formula say it has outlived its purpose, and argue that it hasn’t kept pace with changing technology needs, maintenance requirements, textbook costs and transportation issues. Special task forces and commissions have tweaked the law over the years, but Deal said he favors a broader overhaul in 2015.

The formula is a frequent bugaboo for politicians who take heat from education groups and rivals when it isn’t fully funded. Deal faces two rivals in the 2014 Republican primary, including state Superintendent John Barge, who centers his campaign on a call for more education funding.

“Too often, I think the General Assembly and governors have been held accountable for not funding this program that has never been fully funded,” Deal said. “It needs to be looked at in modern-day terms, to see if there are more appropriate ways for our funding to be directed.”

Many other states use formulas similar to Georgia’s. Most states also spend more per pupil than Georgia. Only a dozen states spent less than the $4,957 per pupil Georgia spent on K-12 public education in 2008-2009, according to an analysis of figures provided by the Southern Regional Education Board.

Schools in Georgia are feeling the pinch. The Cherokee County district reported in December that class sizes for kindergartners rose by more than 56 percent between 2008-2009 and 2012-2013. Teachers and staff had 21 furlough days during that stretch. The district has not bought new textbooks for the past three years, nor school buses for the past two.

“The state is not funding the formula,” said Frank Petruzielo, the superintendent of Cherokee County Schools. “That is the real problem.”

That’s why all eyes will be on Deal’s education budget for the upcoming legislative session. State Sen. Lindsey Tippins, the Marietta Republican who chairs the Senate Education Committee, said parents and teachers who attend his hearings across the state worry their school districts are “almost unsustainable.”

“We’ve had several districts give us the timeline and projections saying they could be insolvent in 18 months or 24 months,” he said. “Some districts have no rainy-day funds. That’s why, from what I’m understanding, the conflict isn’t over QBE. There would be such relief across the state if those cuts are restored.”

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