Georgia should consider allocating larger proportions of money to school districts with higher numbers of poor students, say people working to overhaul state education law for Gov. Nathan Deal.
Deal’s Education Reform Commission has been working since spring to recommend a new approach to everything from the way teachers are paid to school choice. Re-writing the decades old law that distributes state money among school districts was one of the biggest assignments.
The current formula, in place since the 1980s, does not address students in poverty, yet study after study has found a growing proportion of the state’s enrollment coming from low-income households. The new proposal would allocate funding on a per-student basis, and each “economically disadvantaged” student would be worth 25 percent more.
“A lot of the problems that kids are having in K-12 are related to these economic issues,” said Charles Knapp, the chairman of Deal’s commission.
The notion of spending more to get better results flies in the face of some critiques of educational policy, especially among conservatives.
Yet many observers and participants from different camps were happy to see this new focus on poverty.
“Poverty is important and needs to be addressed, and Georgia doesn’t do anything with that,” said Michael O’Sullivan, the representative in Georgia for the group Students First, which wants alternatives to traditional neighborhood schools staffed by traditionally-educated teachers with pensions.
Across the divide, the Professional Association of Georgia Educators, an advocacy group for traditional teachers and a staunch defender of pensions and pay scales, was also thrilled with the proposal. It was something they specifically requested from the commission.
“Poverty definitely does need to be considered in any new formula,” said the organization’s spokesman, Craig Harper. Children in poverty typically reach school age without exposure to books or other cultural enrichment — trips to the museum, for instance — that middle class children take for granted, he said. “It does take more resources to try to catch [poor] kids up.”
Any proposals that emerge from Deal’s commission would likely have to pass through the General Assembly to take effect.
That’s where groups like the Georgia Public Policy Foundation can have an influence. The conservative think tank has argued that money is no solution for educational problems, pointing to trends over the years that show big increases in spending without big academic gains.
“If you look at how spending has increased over the years, why hasn’t it sown up in higher graduation rates,” said Benita Dodd, a vice president of the foundation. “Just going out there and saying let’s throw more money at the problem is really unwise because it hasn’t solved the problem before.”
Others though, note that poverty has been rising over the years.
By 2007, economically disadvantaged students — that’s Georgia’s official designation for them — had become the majority in Georgia’s public schools, and by last year they comprised 62 percent of enrollment.
And Rebecca Sibilia, a former advisor to Deal’s commission, said poverty is concentrating. Since 2006, Georgia has seen a 63 percent increase in students living in school districts where at least a fifth of the school-aged children are in poverty, she said.
Knapp said the members of his group who are grappling with funding reform, including four key Georgia lawmakers, “universally” agree that school districts should get more money for each economically disadvantaged student enrolled. They checked other states and found similar supplements for poverty written into policy, he said.
Sen. Lindsey Tippins, R-Marietta, is one of the lawmakers on Knapp’s committee. He said if the state were to give schools more money to deal with poverty, those schools would have to produce results. But Tippins, who chairs the state senate’s Education and Youth Committee, said more money is needed for the problem. Students in poverty “are costing more to educate because you have so much catch-up” to do with them, he said.
Tippins said, though, that he didn’t know whether his colleagues under the Gold Dome would agree.
“That remains to be seen,” he said.
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