ATLANTA – Georgia’s school funding formula should be overhauled to steer more resources toward students from low-income families, educators, parents, and students from Chatham County told a state Senate study committee Friday.
The Senate formed the Study Committee to Review Education Funding Mechanisms this year to look for ways to modernize the state’s Quality Basic Education (QBE) formula, which dates back to the 1980s.
“When this was originated, Ronald Reagan was president,” Senate Majority Leader Mike Dugan, R-Carrollton, the panel’s chairman, said at the start of the meeting, held on the campus of Savannah State University. “We need to look at the formula to make sure we’re putting the appropriate funding in the appropriate locations.”
Dugan opened the meeting to say that while the state is called the No. 1 state for business, he and the committee are working to make Georgia the top state for education. Senators from Coastal Georgia were Sen. Blake Tillery of Vidalia, who represents a portion of Liberty County; and Sen. Billy Hickman of Statesboro, who represents part of Effingham County and Bullock. Tillery chairs the Senate Appropriations Committee. Both are Republicans.
Student-centered funding model
In Georgia, funding of public education is about evenly divided between the state and local governments, Christian Barnard, senior policy analyst for the Reason Foundation, a Los Angeles-based libertarian think tank, told committee members. He said Georgia is about average among states for spending and funding per student is not solely based on per-student funding but also figures in staffing as one of several other elements. Georgia’s base amount for student allocation equations is comparatively low.
The local component of school funding comes primarily from property tax revenues, which vary greatly depending on the wealth of the community, Barnard said.
“We believe dollars need to be allocated fairly to all students,” he said. Barnard said “student-centered” dollars should be portable across lines and flexible for local districts. He urged transparency in spending and provided case studies from Oklahoma, Tennessee and California as examples. He said there is work to be done to fund lower income students and that Georgia fares pretty well to directing funds for higher need students.
“But it’s not on purpose,” he said. “It’s because there are a lot of low income students in higher property wealth systems.”
Weighting dollars for student need
Several speakers suggested Georgia adopt an “opportunity weight” system of funding public education, which dedicates additional funds to students living in poverty.
Fred Jones, Jr., senior director of public policy and advocacy for the Atlanta-based Southern Education Foundation, said 44 states have adopted opportunity weight funding of schools. He said such a system would help raise Georgia’s high school graduation rate.
“The circumstances a child is born into should not dictate his or her chances of success,” added Denise Grabowski, a member of the Savannah/Chatham Board of Education.
Grabowski complained that Savannah schools aren’t being given the funding needed to keep pace with changing technology. She said the system only has one tech support specialist for every 1,100 students.
She and other speakers also called for Georgia to make the state’s lottery-funded voluntary pre-kindergarten program mandatory.
“We absolutely know the importance of early childhood education to academic achievement and long-term success,” Grabowski said. She also asked for mandatory pre-K funding and to keep “public dollars public” instead of sending money from the systems to private schools. Hickman responded with concerns about low 3rd grade literacy rates across the state. Dugan said he expected the committee’s work to grow the partnership with the school districts and the state.
Other speakers said the schools need more bus drivers and counselors. Funding discussions on transportation centered around the gap in funding from the state for transportation, placing a burden on local systems, driver shortages, mileage for the state’s 13,000 buses. Sen. Nan Orrock, a Democrat representing portions of Atlanta, questioned the safety of older buses and what role the state may have in it. Kelly Pack, a parent of a student at a choice school, noted that the lack of transportation hampers students’ abilities to attend those schools. Pack noted the schools can’t compete for drivers in the logistics marketplace without higher pay and training support.
Looking for equity
Harrison Tran, a student representing The Georgia Youth Justice Coalition and the Deep Center, highlighted inequitable school conditions he experienced in the Savannah-Chatham County Public School System. He told the group that schools with lower income students often had fewer counselors, instructors and services.
Jalecia Quarterman, a Georgia Southern graduate volunteering with Deep Center, said she grew up in public schools until her 10th grade year when she moved to private school. “I would like to see Georgia progress to a more holistic approach,” she said, including counseling and food programs that have been proven to raise academic success.
A series of Spanish-speaking parents spoke through an interpreter. Several parents, whose children attend Chatham County schools including the STEM Academy and Hesse Elementary, asked for more Spanish-speaking teachers, reliable school transportation, and safer schools and school grounds. Advocates from Migrant Equity Southeast pled for help for schools with majority Hispanic populations in Coastal Georgia. Members of the committee agreed with the Spanish-language needs throughout the state.
Max Rosen, with the Democratic Socialists of America, told the committee that funding for mental health counselors is inadequate and crucial to education for all students. “It’s time to put taxpayers’ money where you mouth is,” Rosen said. “These students need the proper resources for their mental health and their education.”
The study committee has until Dec. 1 to make recommendations.
This story is available through a news partnership with Capitol Beat News Service, a project of the Georgia Press Educational Foundation.