Originally created 04/10/98

Alternative school funding scrutinized



ATLANTA -- A year after dampening the skyrocketing growth of its program for slow learners, the Board of Education is setting its auditing sights on the state's more than 130 alternative schools for problem students.

Board Chairman Johnny Isakson said officials will investigate why there are major funding disparities in the CrossRoads Alternative School Program, and what efforts are working.

"We really feel like there are systems that are underfunded. There may be some that are overfunded," Mr. Isakson said. "It's time we got some accountability."

Mr. Isakson announced the review during the board's monthly meeting Thursday in Atlanta.

Dropouts or chronically disruptive students in grades six through 12 are placed in alternative schools designed to handle problem children. Students stay in the schools for a minimum of one quarter before going back to their regular classrooms.

The latest count for the 1997-98 school year shows 5,606 children were in alternative schools. Including lottery funds, about $13.5 million was budgeted for the program this year.

But funding varies widely by district.

For instance, Hancock County got $63,000 for an alternative school program that has four students, or $15,750 per pupil. Camden County got $64,000 for a program with 21 students, or $3,047 per pupil.

Chatham County was allocated $371,000 for its program, which averaged 168 students, according to the most recent count. Clarke County was to get less money for instructing more students, because it averaged 177 students with $216,000. Muscogee County listed 203 students and was allocated $208,000.

Columbia County received $116,000 and averaged 59 students, or $1,966 per pupil. Richmond County got $167,732 and averaged 127 students, or $1,320 per pupil.

Lawmakers tried to balance the per-pupil funding during the 1998 General Assembly session by imposing a uniform formula, but the proposal died after some systems complained they would get less money.

The number of alternative school sites has increased in recent years as districts tried to find a place to put disruptive students.

Mr. Isakson also sees the schools as one of the keys to fighting Georgia's dropout problem.

"One hundred thousand children entered the ninth grade, and only 61,000 graduated. Something happened to those 39,000 kids," he said. "This is part of our dropout-remediation program. We really feel like more can be done."

In 1997, the board gave similar scrutiny to its slow-learners program. The board eventually changed rules of the Special Instructional Assistance program as a result.

Gov. Zell Miller asked the board to investigate why the Special Instructional Assistance program had grown so rapidly and to tighten guidelines. Since 1991, enrollment in the program had jumped 16 percent each year, and in 1997-98 it was expected to cost the state $104 million.

Schools earn more funding for putting students in special assistance, and a state audit found some systems were placing more than 30 percent of their children in slow-learner classes.



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