Schools and money: who gets it, and who gets more

Jefferson County High School senior Summerlyn Tripp rushed to share a hug and good news with her principal recently. She received a $1,000 opera music scholarship to attend Augusta University in the fall.

Tripp sings in school chorus class but doesn’t get additional music lessons.

Educators in this rural county, with its own Peachtree Street lined with small shops and tall pine trees, try to make up for what students don’t have with heavy doses of encouragement and by looking for ways outside of school budgets to get students what they need.

“What we do have, we make the absolute very best of it,” Tripp, 17, said.

An hour north of Atlanta, some students at Forsyth County’s Chestatee Elementary School proudly carry laptop computers they took home over the summer to keep up with their studies. Local philanthropists and community leaders paid for the devices.

“Wow!,” Natasha Parker, the instructional coach at Jefferson’s Carver Elementary School, said when told of the Forsyth program. “That’s something we don’t have.”

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution recently visited the districts to get a glimpse of differences between the perks low-income students in a poorer school system and a richer one can expect, and what difference that can make in their educations and outcomes. In Forsyth, 40 miles north of Atlanta, one in eight children under 18 lived below the federal poverty line in 2014, U.S. Census Bureau numbers say. In Jefferson, about 40 miles southwest of Augusta, every other child under 18 lived below the poverty line.

We found that students in wealthier districts can receive help and assets kids in poor districts don’t, such as greater financial support from local businesses, churches and community organizations, which can better help secure their futures. Wealthy district can offer higher teacher salaries, many of them also received a slightly higher percentage of state money per student in recent years, and districts with larger student populations can get state money for buildings that districts like Jefferson cannot.

Inequality in student education is an issue Georgia tried to solve in 1985 with the Quality Basic Education Act. The legislation created a complex formula to divy up state money, in part, to help poorer counties offer a similar quality of education as wealthy ones. But the laws are out of date, and the state has failed to fund its own recommendations fully, leading to complaints from both rich and poor counties. And the equity formula does not always work out fairly.

State funding to Forsyth, metro Atlanta’s fastest-growing school district, has increased by 23 percent over the last decade, two percentage points higher than Jefferson, the AJC found. Jefferson made up ground last year and received about $5,500 per pupil from the state, about $1,500 more per student than Forsyth.

Jefferson school leaders note their state funding took a $15 million hit via austerity cuts since 2003 as a result of underfunding. That is a lot for a district whose budget this year is $24 million.

All school districts were hit by the cuts, but the AJC found the cuts last school year to Georgia’s 10 lowest-income school districts were greater than cuts to the state’s 10 highest-income school districts by about $27 per student.

We are not a sob story

Many of the state’s lowest-income school districts are located, like Jefferson, in quiet, rural parts of Georgia where agriculture is still the prime economy and the populations are small or shrinking.

Jefferson’s low student population (about 2,750 students) negatively affected the district’s ability to get state money for building improvements. Superintendent Molly Howard noted an elementary school and a middle school in her district can’t receive state capital funds because they have too few students. For example, Louisville Middle School has 374 students — 26 pupils less than the state requires to qualify. Louisville’s principal showed an AJC reporter peeling paint in several hallways of the aging building that opened in the early 1960s.

Jefferson officials are planning to close its two middle schools and merge them, in part, because of the funding issue. They will have to use Education Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax money to build a new school. Despite their resource disadvantage, Jefferson leaders measure themselves academically against metro Atlanta and sometimes come out ahead.

Forsyth had a higher graduation rate among economically-disadvantaged students in 2012-13 and 2013-14, but Jefferson took the lead by five percentage points, at 85 percent, by the end of the 2014-15 school year.

Jefferson’s overall graduation rate was about 85 percent, higher than the state average of 78.8 percent but not as good as Forsyth’s, 94 percent.

“We are not a sob story,” said Jefferson High principal Alan Long.

All could use more

Forsyth officials are sensitive to assumptions that they need no state help. Chestatee’s poverty rate has increased from 37 percent to 48 percent in the last five years, the second-highest rate in that district. Otwell Middle School has a food and clothing pantry for needy students. Scattered between the new, gated subdivisions are older properties in disrepair.

Once infamous for its hostility to non-whites, Forsyth has become a well-educated, commuter community where one in seven of its residents are foreign-born. Still, some new students are undocumented. At Otwell, some immigrant students are on second or third-grade reading levels, officials said. Chestatee principal Polly Tennies would love more money for its school reading program.

Some students arrive in Lori Faulkner’s classroom 30 minutes early to use the computers eager to do homework and explore. Most don’t have them at home. The school, a small but sprawling building, was the first built in Forsyth, in 1931.

Forsyth officials, citing statistics that show many poor students fall behind academically during the summer, thought giving students laptops during the break would help.

Fifth-grader Aaron Woods, 10, is one of the students who took one home. He made the merit roll this year, which honors students who get no lower than a B in any subject. Tennies asked Aaron if he can make honor roll, for straight A students.

“I’ll have to try my best,” he said. Tennies gave him a high five.

Forsyth students have other advantages. In 2008, it partnered with its chamber of commerce to better prepare students for the SAT. Schools try to help students who can’t afford various opportunities through the program. Forsyth’s median SAT score is about 300 points higher than Jefferson’s.

A larger number of Forsyth students also earn a gateway to college. Two-thirds of its graduates say they had a 3.0 or better grade point average, one requirement for the state’s HOPE Scholarship. That is nearly twice the percentage of Jefferson.

Doing “whatever it takes”

In Jefferson, one phrase administrators use is “whatever it takes.” Jefferson High senior Dontavis Hunt said the school his cousin attends in north Augusta has iPads and Mac computers. At Jefferson High, students mostly use Hewlett-Packard computers. Nice, but not the same, Hunt, 18, feels.

“They get more resources,” the A-minus student said.

Strains on state and local budgets have cut into Jefferson’s technology budget. Federal grants fund many of its computers and other tech purchases, they said.

Community members help the school district try to close the gap in different ways. Mentoring. Food drives for needy students. The retired teacher who volunteers at Carver Elementary. They use resourcefulness and creativity to catch up. Howard started a policy that opens Advanced Placement courses to all students, believing access to those classes will benefit any student.

“What are we saying when we exclude you because we say you are not AP material?,” Superintendent Howard asked. “They should be given the opportunity to participate in that.”

And though Jefferson is at a disadvantage when trying to lure new teachers, they depend on the same community spirit to make up for lower pay. It start at $35,174, a few thousand dollars below the state average. Howard and others recruit students to become teachers while they’re still in high school. One teacher, Kanesha Roberts, returned to Jefferson after being a chef in the military and owning a catering business.

Tripp, the Jefferson High senior wh loves to sing, has a plan to teach after she graduates

“I want to come home,” Tripp said.

Unequal funding

Gov. Nathan Deal created a commission that worked in 2015 to develop a new funding formula. But ultimately Deal decided not to try to implement the sure-to-be-difficult recommendations during this year’s legislative session, but promised to come back to it in the next session.

State Sen. Lindsey Tippins, a former Cobb County school board member who chairs the senate’s Education and Youth Committee, believes the state has done more recently to help students in low-income areas. He noted lawmakers added $35 million last year to improve state internet capability. Tippins believes expanded online classes will help students in rural areas.

Tippins, a Republican, is concerned about some recommended changes to the state’s funding formula. One is a proposal that would give school systems more money to educate academically-gifted students, which could mean less for the economically-disadvantaged and those whose native language isn’t English.

Meanwhile, the number of poor kids in Georgia has grown. In 2007, economically-disadvantaged students became the majority in Georgia’s public schools and now comprise 62 percent of the statwide enrollment.

Those who work where poverty rates weigh heaviest hope for a fair shake when the legislative debate begins.

Ken Hildebrant, principal of Jefferson’s Louisville Middle School, had a quick answer when asked what would he say to state lawmakers about school funding needs.

“We need them to make things more equitable,” he said. “We don’t have the economic base.”

Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.

Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.