ATLANTA -- An appointed commission recommending improvements to how public schools in Georgia are funded has spent the past two years considering various options except for one: raising taxes.
“This is kind of where the chips have fallen, so to speak,” said Rep. Terry England, an Auburn Republican who chairs the House Appropriations Committee and headed one of the commission’s key subcommittees.
The existing formula drafted over a quarter-century ago bases funding on a series of ratios of so many students for every teacher, librarian, administrator and such. It hasn’t been updated to include nurses, elementary counselors and computers, which have become part of campus life in the years since lawmakers enacted the Quality Basic Education Act in 1985.
Even without the added nurses, counselors and computers, the legislature has never really provided all of the money to local school systems that the QBE formula specifies. When Sonny Perdue became governor, his budget documents began keeping track of the so-called “austerity cuts,” which topped $1 billion before his successor, Gov. Nathan Deal, stopped publishing the figure.
Still, what the state spends has continually increased, even on a per-student basis. Today, it’s almost $7 billion and half the state budget, but it’s still less than what the formula calls for.
The current commission, which is set to vote Sept. 19 on its final recommendations, isn’t considering wholesale spending changes to the so-called partnership that divides education funding between the state and the local districts. As state funding has failed to keep pace with inflation and requirements like smaller classes, local districts have ended up with a bigger share in that partnership.
As England wrapped up a meeting Wednesday of the subcommittee assigned the key money questions, he explained.
“There will be some minor tweaks in a lot of ways, but as far as what we need to look at, as far as the statewide partnership, I don’t believe we’re at the point of wanting to or needing to recommend any change,” he said. “… I just wanted to make that comment and kind of let folks kind of know where we are there in case somebody was wondering why we didn’t touch some of that.”
He talked about “if there are any additional state funds available at any point in time” and how he would recommend spending them, but he didn’t suggest when they might be available or where they would come from.
Some groups that testified before commission subcommittees called for additional money for the various programs they support. The lobbyists who spend the most time at the Capitol didn’t bring it up.
“I never said to them ‘get more money’ because I know the money is not there,” said Angela Palm, a long-time lobbyist for the Georgia School Boards Association. “I don’t see it happening.”
Polls consistently show that voters favor spending on education, health care and law enforcement, which are the state’s biggest expenditures. However, many politicians saw this summer’s rejection of the transportation sales tax in most of the state as evidence that voters have little appetite for raising any taxes, Palm notes.
Instead, people say schools overspend on administration at the district central office, according to Sen. Fran Millar, a Dunwoody Republican who chairs the Senate Education Committee and co-chairs the education-funding commission with his House counterpart.
“That’s one of the biggest complaints you hear from people, particularly in the metro area,” he said. “They think the central office is bloated.”
The commission is set to cut $20 million from central-office funding, leaving less than 1 percent of its education outlay to administration, which is lower than most private industries, according to commission member Kelly Henson, head of the teacher-certification agency.
“We’ve gotten central-office funding, with this recommendation, down to slightly above a pittance,” he said.
The commission plans to move the administration allotment to classroom computers and electronic blackboards. It will recommend adding to that technology appropriation and to boost spending by about $100 million on other support functions like nurses, psychologists and counselors, buses and teacher training.
But it’s not touching teacher salaries, class size or lengthening the school year, which could each cost another $100 million or more.
And the new spending would be phased in over multiple years — beginning after next year. That makes education advocates skeptical that it will ever happen since the General Assembly has a patterned of not completing phase-ins, especially when they don’t begin until later.
The commission is also recommending simplifying the complex QBE formula somewhat to reduce the paperwork required to carry it out.
“Lacking new money or the sky parting as far as new ideas, for us, at least, simplification was the one area, where we were working, that we could do,” said Sen. Jack Hill, a Reidsville Republican who chairs one of the commission subcommittees and the Senate Appropriations Committee.