ATLANTA - Progress toward improving education is thwarted by state employees who publish questionable data, frequently change directions and maintain independence from senior administrators and legislators.
That's the gist of a recent audit of how the Department of Education complies with budgeting rules set in law and overseen by the Office of Planning and Budget. Analysts for the Department of Audits and Accounts found repeated instances of questionable data, setting easily attainable goals and uniform disregard of the budgeting mechanism.
"Steps should be taken to improve the validity and reliability of the (Education) Department's results measures by placing priority on the collection of important outcomes-related data and by ensuring that goals are fully measured and that all relevant students and grades are included in the results," the auditors write.
Observers say the problems aren't limited to the Education Department where they have existed during the administrations of the past two superintendents.
But education, from pre-kindergarten through college and technical school, consumes 56 percent of the state budget, so the Education Department was the logical place to study budgeting procedures, said Sen. George Hooks, D-Americus. He heads the Budgetary Responsibility Oversight Committee that requested the audit.
"In the past, there has been a certain degree of arrogance," he said of the Education Department. "They take the attitude that 'it's my business.' We take the attitude that it's the people's business."
Ten years ago, the General Assembly enacted a law setting up what has become called results-based budgeting. It was supposed to be a powerful management tool for governors, legislators and members of the public to tie funding to accomplishment.
The procedure required agencies to set goals for each program and to measure progress each year.
At the Education Department, the auditors found repeated instances of arbitrary goals and ones that were set to be easily attainable. They interviewed managers who said they used any criteria they chose to pick a target - such as how much to improve the dropout rate or how many pupils would become proficient in social studies. None got input from either the board of education or then-Superintendent Linda Schrenko. And many of the goals were changed the next year, so tracking progress was impossible.
Mr. Hooks says employees in the agency guard their independence.
"I think it may be inherent to the situation where they don't want to be questioned," he said.
Other government agencies exhibit the same behavior, insiders say. One reason is that managers fear that objective measures showing little or no progress provide ammunition to opponents of particular programs.
Such fears could be heightened with the Republicans' takeover of the Senate and governor's office since the GOP proclaims reduced government spending as a primary aim.
The report casts a shadow on Republican Gov. Sonny Perdue's attempts to revamp the state's budget process.
He ordered agencies to provide even more detailed information about how efficiently they spend taxpayers' money.
He also directly tied future appropriations to the data rather than requesting the data separately as his predecessors did.
Still, changing attitudes could take five years as it has in other states, said Ron Jackson, the deputy director of the Office of Planning and Budget.
The managers of government programs typically are either political appointees or people who were trained as teachers or social workers rather than as managers.
"We were having a lot of difficulty getting state government in general to understand the concept of results-based management," Mr. Jackson said. "State government tends to like to measure things that they do: how many individuals they serve or how many inmates they locked up. ... But to determine the results is tough for state government."
Mr. Perdue has replaced many agency heads with experienced corporate managers accustomed to looking at budgets in terms of accomplishments, efficiencies and results. The Education Department has a new superintendent, Kathy Cox, who, though trained as a teacher, was a legislator who has some experience scrutinizing budgets with a critical eye.
But bringing business practices to government might not change things, said Thomas Lauth, the dean of the School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Georgia.
"I don't believe for a moment that all businesses, simply because they are businesses, that they are run better than government," said Dr. Lauth, who has researched and written on state budgeting since the 1970s.
Among the findings of a state audit were the following observations about how the Department of Education employees go about budgeting:
Source: Department of Audits