Education funding: Budget ax shouldn’t fall hard on schools

The shortfall numbers scrawled across the state’s budgetary blackboard are riveting in an unpleasant way. School Superintendent Kathy Cox told state appropriations committee members earlier this month that Gov. Sonny Perdue’s amended budget would mean $710 million less in basic school funding for schools over the next year and a half. The latest cuts add to a string of “austerity reductions” dating back to 2003 that totaled more than $2.8 billion through the fiscal year ending next June.

We hope lawmakers were attentive during Cox’s remarks. Georgia can’t settle for a gentleman’s C — or worse — in the 2010 version of Education Budgeting 101.

Our state’s economic future dangles in the balance if lawmakers don’t find a way to shield schools as much as possible from the impact of cuts. Georgia’s hard-won gains in educational achievement cannot be allowed to unravel if we’re to remain a competitive place to live and do business.

Consider Georgia’s school graduation rate of 78.9 percent last year. That’s up almost 25 percent over 2003’s figure of 63.3 percent. Becoming a state that graduates a bit more than three in four students is better than graduating fewer than two out of three, we’ll admit. Still, we’re a long way from where we must end up if Georgia is going to thrive in a global economy.

Ron Jackson, commissioner of the Technical College System of Georgia, spoke about the dropout problem during Labor Commissioner Michael Thurmond’s recent Jobs Summit. Jackson noted that, while it’s not unusual for high school dropouts to land jobs, today’s high-tech age nevertheless placed big barriers in their career paths. “They are, for all practical purposes, in the 21st century job market — unemployable,” he said.

That’s the kind of bottom-line effect Georgia must guard against as state and local officials slice another layer from school budgets.

Given the likelihood that budget shortfalls will be with us well beyond 2010, this should be the year that Georgia starts addressing long-standing funding challenges.

For starters, the General Assembly should this year finally fix the state’s flawed school funding formula. Such a solution has, in recent years, eluded a governor’s task force and a state Senate study committee.

The Georgia Partnership for Excellence in Education’s 2010 issues primer smartly urges enaction of a formula “that considers and accurately reflects all the costs associated with providing the constitutionally-required adequate public education.” Sounds like common-sense math to us, but the politically painful part will come in committing money to cover what the partnership calls the state’s “fair share of the basic costs of educating our public school students.” Commitment’s tough without strategically raising some state fees during these dry times.

The state’s school districts must also look hard at new ways to economize.

At a minimum, districts should consider forming cooperatives to gain pricing clout for purchases. A study cited by the Georgia Partnership says pooling purchases could cut costs 8 to 14 percent.

Smaller districts should also honestly examine whether merging with adjacent jurisdictions would improve fiscal performance and free more money for the core work of classroom instruction.

The General Assembly can also help by giving districts more freedom to adjust class size and manage expenses, as Cox has suggested.

Even if all of these steps are taken, cuts will still be required. It’s up to all involved to make sure the reductions are smart ones that keep the focus on where it should be — the students.

Andre Jackson, for the Editorial Board

Atlanta Forward: In coming weeks and months, we will look at major issues Atlanta must address in order to move forward as the economy recovers. Look for the designation “Atlanta Forward,” which will identify these discussions.

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