Education reform could give Georgia schools more state money

Illustration: Georgia Gold Dome. Source: AJC

Combined ShapeCaption
Illustration: Georgia Gold Dome. Source: AJC

Metro Atlanta school districts would get more money under the proposed formula. Here’s how much:

Atlanta Public Schools — $3.2 million

City Schools of Decatur — $653,000

Clayton County School District — $9.6 million

Cobb County School District — $6.7 million

DeKalb County School District — $10.9 million

Fulton County School System — $11.9 million

Gwinnett County Public Schools — $27.5 million

Marietta City Schools — $832,000

These school districts would lose money:

Gainesville City, and Floyd, Burke, Coffee, Crisp, Lumpkin, Tattnall, Worth and Haralson counties.

These school districts would gain 20 percent or more in state revenue:

Baker, Taliaferro, Talbot, Clay, Stewart, Quitman and Webster counties.

School systems across Georgia would get an extra quarter billion dollars under a proposal floated Wednesday by education reformers working for Gov. Nathan Deal.

The funding subcommittee of the governor’s Education Reform Commission was tasked with streamlining the way $8 billion gets divided among Georgia’s school districts and state charter schools. All but nine districts come out ahead under the proposal.

The current formula, known as QBE (Quality Basic Education), was established in 1985 and has been criticized as too complicated and outdated. Deal wanted a simpler formula that gives schools more flexibility with how they spend the money.

The new proposal would add $241 million to the state education budget, increasing the total to $8.46 billion. Georgia has been shorting the current formula since 2003, with current year spending around half a billion dollars less than it requires.

The proposed framework would pass money to schools based on the composition of their enrollment, like QBE, but the new model would attach fewer strings.

For instance, under QBE schools are reimbursed for the cost of each teacher based on where that teacher falls on the state salary schedule, which pays more for experience and advanced degrees. (There would be adjustments for teachers grandfathered under the state pay scale.)

Under the proposed formula, schools would get an amount based on average teacher pay for the state multiplied by their number of teachers, and allocate it based on their own compensation models, which could consider performance and other factors.

There are other differences. For instance, under the current formula, high school students are considered the least expensive to educate while the proposed formula reimburses for them at a higher rate than for students in grades four through eight. The proposed formula has fewer categories of funding but adds a new one for “economically disadvantaged” students, giving districts more money for each student from a low-income household.

What ultimately matters is the bottom line for each school district. Most will come out ahead — if Deal agrees to spend the extra quarter billion dollars.

Representatives from his office declined to discuss that, but some on the panel have been calling for more educational spending. Rep. Tom Dickson, R-Cohutta, who sits on the panel, said he figured the state would be able to afford another quarter billion dollars by the latter part of the decade assuming the economy doesn’t falter. It would take that long to implement such a policy change, he added.

Dickson said the committee had accomplished its goal of simplifying the funding formula, but he also said the loss of complexity means a loss of nuance. The formula is now driven by averages rather than specific counts of students and their time with teachers. That change will benefit some districts and hurt others, he said.

In metro Atlanta, Gwinnett County Public Schools would see the biggest gain with an added $27.5 million. But the district also has more students than any in Georgia. The Fulton County School System would see the largest proportionate increase in metro Atlanta, at 3.5 percent. The Cobb County School District would get the smallest proportionate windfall in metro Atlanta — 1.4 percent more.

J. Alvin Wilbanks, the Gwinnett superintendent and a member of the panel, said he was pleased “overall” with the proposal. He speculated that “quite a number” of school districts would have lost money if not for the additional spending, though.

Officials didn’t calculate how many districts would have lost money, but observers of the proceedings at the Capitol noted that the proposal sets a new funding norm that is below what QBE requires.

“Building this funding on a fully-funded QBE would give me more hope. We’re basing this on a formula that’s $450 million under-funded,” said Klinton Guess, finance director for Tift County Schools in South Georgia.

QBE is actually $466 million under-funded, and that’s not counting a $180 million gap in school bus funding and another $15 million in “sparsity” money earmarked for mostly rural districts, according to the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute, a nonprofit monitoring the proceedings.

The proposal could change. The funding committee has scheduled one more meeting, on Nov. 12, before it presents its recommendation to the full Education Reform Commission on Nov. 19. The more than 30 members of the full commission will then decide what to do. They will meet again in December before presenting their recommendations to Deal. It will be up to the governor to get his floor leaders to craft legislation and present it to the General Assembly.

Lawmakers would then decide whether the proposals improve education and are worth the money.