Why can’t state figure out how to fund schools fairly?

Over the last 15 years, seven panels have attempted to change how Georgia funds education and essentially failed, a record not atypical for school finance reform across the country. The most recent commission, created by Gov. Nathan Deal, examined how the state appropriates school dollars but not whether it spends enough — and that is the critical question.

It has increasingly fallen to courts to wade into a funding morass complicated by a longstanding reliance on local will and capacity rather than on evidence of how much it takes to educate a child. In Connecticut last week, a Superior Court judge jumped headfirst into the quagmire, ordering a complete overhaul of a financing system that he charged favors wealthy communities.

In a sweeping decision he read word for word for three hours, Judge Thomas Moukawsher of State Superior Court in Hartford said school funding in the state was inherently inequitable and enables “rich school districts to flourish and poor school districts to flounder.” He gave the state 180 days to return with a plan of not only how to better fund education, but evaluate and pay teachers and test and graduate students.

During the 2017 legislative session, Deal is expected to push changes to Georgia’s decades-old school funding formula, which remains more wishful thinking than reality. According to its own formula, the state dramatically underfunds its schools every year. For example, even after increasing education spending this year, Georgia underfunded schools by $166 million for the 2017 fiscal year. And Georgia still relies primarily on property taxes to pay for schools, which contributes to disparities in per-pupil spending.

Moukawsher’s landmark ruling in the 11-year-old legal clash between the state and the Connecticut Coalition for Justice in Education Funding is both a call to action and a fierce reprimand. And much of what he wrote applies to Georgia’s funding approach.

The judge criticizes state education policies as “so befuddled or misdirected as to be irrational. For instance, the state spends billions of dollars on schools without any binding principle guaranteeing that education aid goes where it’s needed. During the recent budget crisis, this left rich schools robbing millions of dollars from poor schools. State graduation and advancement standards are so loose that in struggling cities the neediest are leaving schools with diplomas but without the education we promise them.”

The judge says the state of Connecticut cannot improve schools by standing on the sidelines “imposing token statewide standards. To keep its promise of adequate schools for all children, the state must rally more forcefully around troubled schools.” The Legislature, he says, has to adopt an “honest formula that delivers state aid according to local need.”

To read more about the case and its implications nationwide, go to the AJC Get Schooled blog.

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