ATLANTA -- A combination of trends converging during the recession-weakened economy have left schools struggling to cope, according to a new report by a foundation focused on increased taxpayer spending on social services.
The Georgia Budget and Policy Institute issued a report Wednesday called The Schoolhouse Squeeze that details the challenges of declining values for taxable property, a state government dealing with shrunken tax collections and a rise in the number of students from low-income families needing intensive instruction.
“These forces combine to put tremendous strain on districts at a time when they are working to lift student achievement to higher levels than ever,” wrote Claire Suggs, a policy analyst at the Atlanta-based think tank. “Ultimately, these changes threaten the state’s economy because attracting high-wage employers requires a large well-educated and highly skilled workforce.”
Three of every five students come from families poor enough to qualify for free and reduced-price lunch. Most education experts say students from poor families generally require more assistance in school than those from middle-income or wealthier families. Three county districts, Baker, Quitman and Warren, have every student qualified for free lunch.
At the same time, the aftereffects of the last recession caused local property values to plunge an average of 17.5 percent in 132 of the state’s 180 school districts between 2008 and 2012, according to the report. Property taxes are the main source of income for school boards.
As a result, 138 districts raised their tax rate, 11 of them by 20 percent or more.
At the same time, Gov. Nathan Deal and the General Assembly have had to cope with the state’s own decline in tax collections by continuing a longstanding practice of providing less than the specified amount to local schools in the state’s funding formula. Over the last 10 years, that has totaled $1 billion less than the formula specified, or $633 per student, according to the report.
However, Deal and the lawmakers have targeted spending outside of the formula for education programs they consider more effective while sparing education the cuts required of other parts of state government.
“The governor has increased education spending every year he has been in office, even as he has cut spending in almost all other state departments,” said Deal spokesman Brian Robinson. “Even with a tight state budget as the state is still recovering from the Great Recession, Gov. Deal has held the line on spending for our schools while not raising taxes on Georgia families and job creators. We have to balance many competing and worthy objectives, but the governor has prioritized education funding.”
Suggs concludes her report with an appeal for greater state funding, noting that Deal and other state leaders have called for higher student achievement.
“They have outlined promising policies intended to get students there. They now must provide all of the resources students need to meet these expectations,” she wrote.