Georgia ranks near the bottom on school spending, but does it matter?

Georgia spends less than the national average on education, appearing near a bottom of the list of states.

The new figures from the U.S. Census add a data point to what will surely be a furious debate during next year’s legislative session, when Gov. Nathan Deal is expected to push changes to Georgia’s decades-old school funding formula, which demands more than the state has been willing to pay.

Per-pupil spending for Georgia was $9,202 in fiscal year 2014, according to the new report. That’s $1,807 less than the national average, and puts the state 38th in the nation.

The numbers do little to change a debate about the value of spending on education.

Some say more money doesn’t necessarily buy better education; others say it can.

“There is a growing body of academic research that says money matters,” said Claire Suggs, an analyst with the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute. She said recent studies found higher graduation rates and student achievement in states that put more money into schools, with the greatest gains coming where the additional money was invested in districts with high poverty, of which Georgia has many.

Yet other research shows that extra spending hasn’t led to better outcomes when nuances such as the relative poverty of students and the cost of living are taken into account, said Kelly McCutchen, president and CEO of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation, a conservative foil to Suggs’ group. His group’s research shows that Georgia improved academically during the past decade when state officials imposed deep annual cuts to school budgets.

State-by-state comparisons produce little but confusion: Georgia does better than some states and worse than others that it outspends. The picture can get murkier still. For instance, factor in cost-of-living and Georgia looks like a big spender. The state ranked 13th in the nation in educational spending relative to personal income, according to the Census report.

Differing views about the value of educational dollars are based in part on how one suspects schools will use the money. McCutchen said his group’s research indicates that when schools get more cash, they spend it on administrative “bloat” instead of investing in teachers. But Suggs, citing different research, said extra money invested in poorer school districts tended to buy smaller class sizes, higher teacher pay and more school days.

Both Suggs and McCutchen acknowledge the complexity and conflicting interpretations. Though they disagree on how to read the data, they agree on one point, sort of.

“Spending is important, but spending more doesn’t guarantee success and spending less doesn’t guarantee failure,” McCutchen said. “It’s how you spend it.”

Said Suggs: “How you spend it matters, but ultimately the amount you put in also matters.”

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