Originally created 08/25/04

Fix funding formulas



Georgia's elected leaders must make every effort to resolve the state's school funding formula before the courts do - lest the state end up going down the same rocky road as South Carolina.

Eight poverty-plagued rural school districts are suing the state legislature in Manning, S.C., on grounds the current system of funding school districts - a mix of property taxes, federal aid and state money - unconstitutionally favors wealthier school districts over poorer ones and violates the Education Accountability Act passed decades ago.

This Carolina suit, which started nearly a year ago, was supposed to be wrapped up in eight or 10 weeks. It's still dragging on with no end in sight. Even if the judge rules in favor of the rural school districts, the decision will be appealed, and that could take months or even years to be resolved.

Meanwhile, nothing is getting done on the legislative side to help rural schools because everyone's waiting for the courts to act.

Surely, this is not the road Georgia wants to take, but it appears the state is headed that way. School districts in McDuffie, Jefferson and Warren counties are joining 50 other mostly rural counties to sue the state for more education money. Like South Carolina, they say the current funding formula is unfair to poor, rural districts.

Take McDuffie County, for instance. School Superintendent Mark Peterson says state funding cuts have deprived McDuffie County of $2.2 million over the past three years. These are crucial revenues which the school district can't make up by raising property taxes - as wealthier districts do - because the local tax base is too thin and narrow to absorb it.

A favorable court ruling, says Peterson, could bring the state's poor, rural school districts more than $1 billion. Such suits have been successful in Texas, New Jersey and a number of other states.

But they've also been divisive - triggering charges of court tyranny. Judges, after all, should not be telling legislators how to do their job. But what if the legislators aren't doing their job?

In South Carolina, the rural school districts are suing the General Assembly. And the General Assembly's defense is - if you can believe this - that each child is only entitled to a "minimally adequate education" which the rural schools are providing.

There's a great recruiting slogan - "Come to South Carolina and your child, too, can have a minimally adequate education."

Is this the message Georgia wants to send to the rest of the world?

It's the height of hypocrisy for lawmakers in Georgia and South Carolina to brag that they insist on high standards for their public schools, then not provide many of them with the financial wherewithal to achieve those standards.

The legislatures in both states need to recognize that rural school districts do, indeed, need more help and that new and fairer funding formulas will be necessary to deal with the problem. They should get busy. Leaving this issue to the courts will only make the problem worse.