This week’s Courier Herald column:
During last year’s gubernatorial contest, the main plank in Democratic candidate Jason Carter’s campaign was to segregate Georgia’s education budget and increase funding for education. The plans for how the additional money would be spent – or how results from Georgia’s perennially low education rankings would be improved – were scarce in detail.
It’s almost universally accepted that money is the biggest problem with Georgia’s public education system. Local school systems certainly love to help with this rhetoric when it comes time to divvy up the state budget. This despite the fact that over a half billion was added to local education funding in last year’s budget, and the Governor has proposed over a quarter billion in additional funding this year.
Given the talk of budget “cuts” over the past several years, one might wonder how Georgia stacks up to our neighbors with respect to education spending. The results are somewhat surprising given the widely accepted view that Georgia underfunds education at the state level.
As a percentage of Georgia’s total state expenditures (from both state and federal funds), Georgia devotes 24% – almost one in every four dollars spent – on K-12 education. Using 2013 numbers as comparison, Ballotpedia shows that the only neighboring state close to Georgia in spending is North Carolina, at 23.3%. Alabama spends 20.9%, Florida spends 18.8%, Tennessee spends 17.7%, and South Carolina devotes only 15.9% of its budget to public schools.
On a basis of spending alone, Georgia is clearly not neglecting its responsibility to educate our children. Where we appear to be missing out is ensuring accountability of results for this investment. This is where current education reform policy in Georgia is focused.
At the root of all reform is the word “choice”. The degree of change related to these choices is directly related to both their level of controversy and the likelihood that they can and ultimately will be implemented.
Perhaps the easiest of the initiatives is contained in a measure that passed the Senate unanimously last Tuesday. It would allow students who have completed the requirements of 9th and 10th grades to count work toward an associate’s degree, technical college diploma, or other occupational programs to count toward their high school diploma. The idea is a student choosing higher level coursework that they are interested in makes them less likely to drop out, while at the same time ensuring that the skills they are learning lead to viable employment alternatives.
A higher degree of political difficulty is Governor Deal’s proposal to create a “Recovery School District”. Modeled after programs used in Louisiana and Tennessee, the program would give the state the ability to take over failing schools. The other states generally use non-profit operators of charter schools to reconstitute school operations, and have some element of school choice as to where students attend. Rules are generally established at the school principal level, and can be changed at the principal’s discretion – up to and including extending the school days.
In New Orleans where the program was pioneered, schools that failed to meet attendance and improvement goals did not have their charters renewed with a “zero tolerance” policy. The result was that only the schools that both had interest from students & parents were deemed viable, and then only those who showed improvement received charter renewals each year.
The schools and students remained within the public funding arena. The accountability – for educators as well as students and parents – changed the dynamic using the market power of choice to force improvement into a stagnant system.
The Recovery School District plan will require a constitutional amendment, which means 2/3 of both the House and Senate to pass. The measure would then have to be approved by a majority of Georgia’s voters.
Legislators will also be considering a proposal to lift the amount of tax credits given to donors of Student Scholarship Organizations (SSO’s). Essentially this program allows 100% tax credits to donors of SSO’s up to an aggregate $58 Million. Donated funds are then used to provide scholarships to private schools for children currently enrolled in public schools.
Georgia’s program has proven quite popular. The 2015 cap was reached in just seven hours this year, indicating there is a much stronger market for additional contributions.
Critics, however, see these funds as money taken from public schools, despite the fact that the scholarships may not exceed the average Georgia public expenditure per student. Supporters argue that the expense removed for teaching the student allows the student the best opportunity while leaving the local system with no net loss.
Still, unlike charter schools that retain all money spent within the public realm, SSO’s do open public funds to be used by private institutions, creating questions of private accountability and equal accessibility. Expect critics to push these and other questions hard as part of any effort to increase the amount currently allotted to SSO’s.
Questions should never be avoided when dealing with public money. They should also not be avoided of those currently accounting for one quarter of Georgia’s total expenditures. Those who demand that all current money remain within the public system should be expected to come to the table with tangible proposals to help ensure results are commensurate with the investment.