Gov. Deal’s Education Reform Commission pushes back on school funding

Gov. Nathan Deal’s education reform funding committee meets in early spring. TY TAGAMI / AJC

Gov. Nathan Deal’s education reform funding committee meets in early spring. TY TAGAMI / AJC

Lawmakers on Gov. Nathan Deal’s Education Reform Commission are pushing back against a key concept in his plan to change the way education is funded in Georgia.

Deal wants to streamline the decades-old formula that distributes state tax proceeds to school districts. It uses complicated calculations that consider details like the number of years teachers have been on the job or the level of formal education obtained.

But at a meeting Thursday, many members of the commission’s funding committee — a hand-picked panel that includes members of the Georgia General Assembly — said they wanted to keep the present formula, which rewards districts that maintain teaching staffs with lots of training and experience.

“There’s no way not to have a huge impact, and in some cases, a crippling impact, on individuals and school districts if we don’t,” said Rep. Terry England, R-Auburn. Any new formula for distributing money must take into account teacher seniority, said England, the chairman of the House’s budget-writing committee.

Erin Hames, who oversees education policy for Deal, said that if the group doesn’t recommend doing away with paying for training and experience, then “I’m not sure that we’re going to change anything about the way business is done.” She also said research is “pretty clear” that teachers with advanced degrees do no better in the classroom, an assertion that was challenged by at least one committee member.

The group also took aim at another fundamental Deal precept: Charles Knapp, whom Deal selected to lead this commission, has consistently said that the group will not calculate how much it should cost to educate a child. Instead, he has said, the group must figure out how best to divide up whatever money the state chooses to spend on education.

Numerous similar panels under prior governors have tried and failed to tally what it should cost, and Knapp wants to avoid the same fate for this panel.

But lawmakers, including Rep. Tom Dickson, R-Cohutta, pushed back on that, too. “It all starts with what does it cost,” said Dickson, who helps write the House education budget. “You’ve got to know that.”

Sen. Lindsey Tippins, R-Marietta, said the panel should study how much states with similar demographics but better performance are spending on each child. “We need to plagiarize a little bit,” said Tippins, who chairs the Senate Education and Youth Committee.

After the meeting, Tippins said a departure from the current formula that encourages districts to keep teachers on the job, “would create a huge amount of turmoil” and “would punish the districts that have the most stable workforce.”

He said he supports allowing school districts the flexibility to pay teachers regardless of their training and experience but said the state shouldn’t be making such decisions.

“Those are decisions that are a whole lot better made at the local level,” he said.

Teacher advocates were cheered by the new trajectory of Deal’s committee.

“I see it as a bit of a rebellion … a little standing up to the governor because they know the harm it would do to their school districts,” said Tim Callahan, spokesman for the Professional Association of Georgia Educators. “Some of them are showing a little belated spine.”

Until recently, the commission seemed to be following the governor’s orders, he said. That started to change in recent weeks, when the four lawmakers on the funding committee asked Deal to move back the deadline for their recommendation, which was due in August. Deal relented, giving them until Dec. 18. It means he won’t be able to implement a new funding model until the summer of 2017, a year later than he had hoped.