Georgia school students getting poorer

Advocate for change maps concentrations of poverty

Poverty among school-aged children is becoming increasingly concentrated in Georgia, and any overhaul of school funding must address the issue, says an education advocate who helped shape Gov. Nathan Deal’s school agenda.

In the past, critics of traditional schools argued that more money didn’t necessarily equate to better performance. Now, groups like EdBuild, which are pushing for more “flexibility” in spending, argue that students in high-poverty schools require more services, and money, but often get less than their better off peers. That’s because local property taxes, driven by local property values, pay the bulk of the school bill. The state’s current funding formula, which supplements those local funds, doesn’t really address the regional imbalances, and should, argues Rebecca Sibilia, the founder and CEO of EdBuild.

“After we get to a place where those funds are distributed progressively, then we can start discussing” how the money is spent, said Sibilia, who previously was COO of StudentsFirst, the group formed by former Washington, D.C. schools chancellor Michelle Rhee, known as a school “reform” crusader. StudentsFirst, which Rhee has since left, is pro-charter school, pro-school choice and pro-school change.

Sibilia’s views matter in Georgia because she was advising his Education Reform Commission, which has been discussing an overhaul of the state’s school funding formula since last spring. Deal didn’t hire EdBuild. The group, which is funded by organizations bent on shaking up traditional schools, came with its own funding, but only budgeted enough to work on the project through July. That was Deal’s original deadline for recommendations, but a lack of consensus about direction led to pressure from lawmakers on the commission to push back the deadline. Deal relented, and gave them until December.

Sibilia is no longer working with the commission, but is promising to offer her advice if called. In the meantime, she's produced an interactive map that shows increasing poverty washing over schools in Georgia and the nation since 2006. EdBuild says there's been a 63 percent increase in students living in school districts with at least 20 percent of students in poverty, and 119,000 live in districts with at least 40 percent poverty.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has previously reported about the effects of rising poverty as the proportion of students who qualify for free or reduced-price school meals has soared. By 2007, "economically disadvantaged" students, as the state officially calls them, had become the majority in Georgia's public schools, and by last year they comprised 62 percent of enrollment.

Others have reported on the same trend: early this year, the Atlanta-based Southern Education Foundation reported that 51 percent of public school students in America were from low-income households in 2013 and that Georgia had the seventh largest proportion, at 60 percent.

EdBuild argues that schools need more resources to “level the playing field,” and that’s one area where Deal’s reform commission seems to have found a consensus. The early proposals for a new school funding formula contain a supplement for school districts that have higher concentrations of these disadvantaged students.