Like predecessors, Deal lets Georgia’s scorned school formula persist

Gov. Nathan Deal once said that the Quality Basic Education formula used in funding schools was not suitable to “meet the needs of a 21st century classroom,” but he abandoned a promise he made during his 2014 bid for re-election to overhaul it. “There were too many other things that were important that we felt like we could achieve,” Deal told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. (DAVID BARNES / DAVID.BARNES@AJC.COM)

Gov. Nathan Deal once said that the Quality Basic Education formula used in funding schools was not suitable to “meet the needs of a 21st century classroom,” but he abandoned a promise he made during his 2014 bid for re-election to overhaul it. “There were too many other things that were important that we felt like we could achieve,” Deal told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. (DAVID BARNES / DAVID.BARNES@AJC.COM)

When Georgia leaders wrote a groundbreaking formula in 1985 to change the way the state subsidizes public schools, most students were writing term papers on typewriters and only dreamed of using a “videophone,” like the one in the futuristic cartoon show called “The Jetsons.”

More than three decades later, tablets and cellphones are commonplace in schools. Yet Georgia still relies on the Quality Basic Education formula, an aging rubric that distributes more than $9 billion to them.

And some say the QBE is so outdated that it robs school systems of flexibility while lavishing money on some districts that don’t need the cash so sorely.

Four years ago, Gov. Nathan Deal made overhauling it one of his main promises in his re-election campaign against Democrat Jason Carter.

But Deal repeatedly postponed that pledge after he was elected, and entering his final year in office, he made official what many lawmakers long figured was inevitable: There would be no rewrite of a formula he once assailed as a disservice to students, a drain on taxpayers and not suitable to “meet the needs of a 21st century classroom.”

“There were too many other things that were important that we felt like we could achieve,” Deal told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

“Until the education community itself comes to the realization that they need to improve the quality of their educational offerings,” he said, “only then will you be able to address these bigger and broader issues.”

With his retreat, Deal is in familiar company. Almost every governor since the formula’s creation has criticized it — while also facing criticism for failing to live up to its demands. Yet none has proved capable of overhauling it.

Deal’s successor will face the increasingly difficult task of rewriting the formula or sticking with a school funding method that has hobbled the education priorities of a string of previous governors.

“It’s like invading Russia in winter,” said Kelly McCutchen, a policy watchdog who had hoped for a breakthrough under Deal.

The senior fellow with the conservative Georgia Public Policy Foundation said an overhaul of the formula is desperately needed to address modern challenges in education. Many school districts and charter schools might have benefited from the simpler formula that was proposed by a commission Deal empaneled for most of 2015, he said.

“I still don’t understand why the decision was made to pull the plug after all that effort,” McCutchen said. “I guess they counted the votes and decided they didn’t have them.”

‘Unrealistic expectation’

Gubernatorial elections often hinge on school funding, and candidates typically cast themselves as the “education governor,” with sweeping plans to remake k-12 education.

That’s what happened in 2014, when education was the dominant theme of Deal’s re-election battle. Facing Carter, who pledged to significantly boost k-12 spending by pursuing tax cheats, Deal took a different tack, pledging to overhaul the school funding formula. He said it was a more practical approach that would improve schools with more efficient and effective spending.

After he won a second term, though, the Republican instead unveiled a proposal to create a statewide district with the power to take over Georgia's most distressed schools. But voters broadly rejected that idea in 2016.

That defeat "took a lot of air out of the room," said state Sen. Fran Millar, R-Dunwoody, a former chairman of the Senate's Education and Youth Committee.

The loss led Deal to again ignore his funding overhaul pledge during the 2017 legislative session, when the main education item on his agenda was a softer alternative to his failed school improvement plan. He got a law that establishes a school “turnaround” chief to prod low-performing schools.

Millar said Georgia needs to amend its formula to give more money to school districts with high concentrations of students in poverty. Most states already do this, and he said Georgia has “danced around” the funding problem with small legislative proposals. “Piecemeal” changes to the funding formula won’t bring equity, he said. “I hope the next governor will pick it up and run with it.”

Deal isn’t the first governor with scars from education policy battles.

Zell Miller was bruised by fights over gambling and education spending before the lottery-funded HOPE scholarship became his signature achievement.

Educator groups fiercely opposed Roy Barnes’ plan to end tenure for newly hired teachers and require students to pass new tests before advancing.

Sonny Perdue was rocked by opposition to the “austerity” cuts to k-12 funding that he started in 2003.

Perdue and Deal each tussled with critics after failing to fully meet the formula’s funding requirements. Educators and political opponents questioned their commitment to public schools.

Other governors didn’t fully fund other parts of the 1985 law, such as a “career ladder” that would have given high-performing teachers a way to earn more money.

Deal said the decades-long feud has also had a perverse psychological effect on struggling school systems: It gives administrators who don’t get their full allotment “an excuse for failing to do what you should do with the number that you received.”

Deal's spending plan this year includes about $9 billion for education — more than one-third of the state budget — and continues last year's undercutting of the funding formula by more than $166 million. Just hours after his proposal emerged, Democrats seized on the deficit.

"Our schools should serve as centers for thriving families and strong communities. They cannot rise to this level without increasing and fully funding the Quality Basic Education formula," House Minority Leader Bob Trammell said. "QBE has never been fully funded, and doing so is a necessary first step in building the foundation for Georgia's future."

An ‘adequate’ education

Prodded by the courts over concerns about inequities in the local funding capacity of school districts, the 1985 Quality Basic Education Act resulted from 18 months of study by a 41-member commission appointed by then Gov. Joe Frank Harris.

Most of the roughly 70 proposals made it into the law, including the core component: a complicated formula that fundamentally changed how the state divvied up funding to school districts.

Previously, the state sent money to each district based merely on the number of students, and there was no accounting for actual costs.

Today, the state pays for about half of the typical school district’s education budget, most of the rest coming from local property tax revenue and a tiny slice coming from the federal government. So the state share is crucial.

The 1985 formula attempted to make up for gaps in funding for poorer areas with a weaker local tax base and also to compensate districts based on their actual costs.

Students were sorted into categories. High school students were deemed less expensive to educate than, say, kindergartners, while students labeled gifted or with disabilities were considered more costly.

For the first time, the formula established a minimum threshold for state funding under a constitutional obligation to furnish an “adequate” public education.

But by the time Perdue had become governor, that threshold had risen to a level the state would no longer pay. In 2003, he implemented across-the-board “austerity” cuts that have continued under Deal.

Per-pupil spending relative to other states fell. In 2002, Georgia ranked 22nd in per-pupil spending among the states and the District of Columbia, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. In the most recent count, for 2015, Georgia ranked 38th.

Critics of the formula, including Deal, say how much one spends is less important than how one spends it. They say the important thing is that the formula hasn’t kept pace with school needs for services such as technology and transportation, or for a salary structure that rewards performance over credentials or experience.

“The funding still relies on a 1985 formula,” Deal said while campaigning for re-election in 2013. “Just think what it would be like if we still transported kids to school in 1985 school buses.”

Advocates for charter schools and other alternatives to traditional education want the formula changed because they think it’s too restrictive.

If a school has a certain number of students who don’t speak English, for instance, the school will only earn supplemental funding for them if it maintains a specified student-teacher ratio with teachers who are specifically credentialed to help them, said Michael O’Sullivan, who leads the advocacy group GeorgiaCAN.

But what if some of those students would do better with tutoring or some other type of teacher?

“It shouldn’t be we’re going to have this program because we’re going to draw down these dollars,” he said.

Deal created an Education Reform Commission that proposed a new formula that focused mostly on cutting the strings between funding and spending. The resulting “flexibility” was supposed to bring about the efficiency he wanted.

But others say the real problem all along has been the underfunding of the old formula.

Joseph C. Barrow, Fayette County’s superintendent, calculates that the underfunding of it is costing his district nearly $2 million this year, with a cumulative cost of about $108 million since 2003.

He said the formula is “solid and functional” and just needs to be fully funded.

‘Winners and losers’

Any overhaul of the formula would have required more money to be politically feasible, said Ben Scafidi, who was an education policy adviser to Perdue.

“Because if you change one comma in the formula, there are winners and losers,” said Scafidi, who teaches economics at Kennesaw State University. “And you’ve got to make everybody a winner.”

To sweeten the pot, Deal's commission ran the numbers on its proposed formula with an additional $241 million in state funding for at the least the first year.

Nearly every district did better than under the proposed formula with that cash infusion, but there were no guarantees that the money would stay in future budgets. The proposed formula didn’t bind the state to any minimum threshold of spending, a cornerstone of the 1985 law, even if it wasn’t always honored.

Also, though the commission never released a comparison, some districts apparently did worse under the proposed formula than under the current formula when that extra quarter-billion dollars was factored out.

Courtney English, who was chairman of the Atlanta school board, said his finance department told him the district “would have been in a position to actually get less money from the state.”

So will Deal’s QBE tangle be a cautionary tale for the candidates seeking to replace him in November?

Several of the seven leading contenders have campaigned on the need to rework the formula or boost its funding, although few have put it at the center of their campaign. Among them is Hunter Hill, a former GOP state senator who calls for “student-centered” redesign — and worries that without it k-12 education will “hold us back from being a better state.”

“The arguments and fights against a reform are coming from the education establishment. We need to have an equitable system that puts students and families first,” he said. “If it were easy, it would have already been done.”

Deal, for his part, hopes to root on his successor — whoever that may be — from the sideline.

“We can continue to whittle away at it. It’s not one of those trees — like a sweet gum tree — that you can whack down with one fell swoop,” he said. “You have to chop around the roots.”