Georgia’s Education Problems Not All About Money

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.


  1. Teri says:

    The spending picture goes beyond percentage of the budget. In Georgia we are spending around $10.7K/student; in Louisiana, it’s about $11.8K/student; nationally the average is around $12.7K/student. QBE funding shows us that you can’t just throw money at a problem and hope it somehow improves the situation, and it’s heartening that our leaders are willing to look beyond our borders for solutions that aren’t necessarily “Georgia-grown.”

    What kind of background are legislators getting on the complete situation in New Orleans, and have Georgia’s leaders articulated to voters what, exactly, our schools are recovering from? In NO, it’s easy to identify: decades of poor leadership and mismanagement, compounded by Katrina’s devastation in terms of physical plant, tax base, and enrollment. You also have to factor in the impact of Catholic schools (their enrollment also declined post-K): the Legislature is remiss if they don’t consider all three districts educating kids in the New Orleans area: the Recovery School District, the Orleans Parish School Board, and the Archdiocese of New Orleans. Something like 38,000 students are enrolled in Archdiocesan schools (these schools are not by any means educating only privileged kids); about 44,000 attend OPSB and RSD schools. It’s also important to consider the resources RSD schools have available for special needs kids (full disclosure: my sister is a special needs teacher a charter school in NO), and how that applies to Georgia.

    • Charlie says:

      I had a good visit to an Archdiocese school the week before last when I visited DC to attend a Franklin Center program on School Choice. We went to Archbishop Carroll High School which served a predominantly poor area of DC proper but drew from a relatively wide area of Maryland and NoVa.

      The Catholic schools of DC seem to be serving an important role in DC’s Opportunity Scholarship program, similar to the vouchers in Georgia’s SSO program. The scholarships aren’t quite enough to pay full tuition, but are close. (My recollection is that there’s about a $1,000/year difference, and I believe additional financial aid from the school is possible though the principal also said the school has a strong belief that “everyone should pay something”. 50% of their students participate in the Opportunity Scholarship program.

      I haven’t written much about it yet as I haven’t had the time to find a local comparison. The school and its student scholars were quite impressive however. I would like to see how well this model could be replicated here, or if it is, how we can leverage that.

      • Teri says:

        One school to follow in ATL is Christo Rey. It’s brand-new so there won’t be any data for a few years, but it’s providing a much-needed alternative in downtown Atlanta. I dearly wish we had more Jesuit options like Christo Rey in this area, and IMO Archdiocese of Atlanta education office doesn’t do nearly enough to serve families in metro Atlanta. For example, Cobb County, where the Archdiocese is headquartered, is tremendously underserved with parochial school options (two K-8 schools, no high schools). As for SSOs, I’m a fan (while recognizing that there are valid criticisms) and think it is a great resource for families seeking an alternative. (I also dearly wish my household was also getting the full $2500 SSO credit for 2015, qué será, será…)

        • raharkne says:

          My daughter is in the inaugural class of Cristo Rey. We live in South DeKalb. I have exercised the option to enroll her in a magnet school and a state charter school prior to this year. Cristo Rey has surpassed my greatest expectations. There is LOTS of homework and it has taken about half the school year for her to adjust, but she actually says that this is the first time she was truly proud of her school. She works five days a month for the Coca Cola Company to pay most of her tuition. All students must participate in work study. She has a very long school day, but now is appreciative of the higher standards and the support she gets from staff and volunteers that tutor them before and after school. I am extremely grateful that she was chosen to attend Cristo Rey Atlanta Jesuit High School.

      • Ellynn says:

        Keep in mind…

        Almost every Catholic school (in general) offers some type of reduction in tution and fees to parishioners who volenteer time and talents to the church. If their not willing to be involved, they can lose their enrollment (not an option in a pubic school). Most of this is handled by a school to school, Dioceses to Diocese and church to church basis. What funding and scholarships an indivisional school works from is very much dependant on the structure and willingness of the people involved. Example, my current church has most of their scholarships through private trusts, Grace Scholars, a very large line item on the parish yearly budget and even public grants. The church is also one of the largest (by both members and Median income per household) in the Diocese. This makes our funding and scholarship setup very different then say a rural school or an inner city Catholic school.

        Also, when puch comes to shove, a Catholic school always has the chance of being ‘saved’ by the Bishop in charge, if the Diocese chooses to do so, reguardless of performance and/or enrollment.

  2. androidguybill says:

    1. “It’s almost universally accepted that money is the biggest problem with Georgia’s public education system.”

    Money obviously is not the biggest problem, but it is a problem. Especially considering that A) fixing certain problems and B) providing REAL school choice/reform/innovation most certainly takes money, and a lot of it.

    2. “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.”

    Equivalent to being the tallest at a … well I won’t resort to that politically incorrect idiom. Again, accepting that funding levels are not the SOLE or even PRIMARY variable in educational outcomes – which is a position held by those who view public education as merely another vehicle to redistribute wealth and pursue social engineering – why not compare Georgia’s funding levels to states that actually perform well, or at least average, academically? It isn’t Alabama, Tennessee and South Carolina that we are competing against for six figure finance and software engineering jobs … it is Massachusetts, New Jersey, Connecticut and Oregon.

    Perhaps the best state to compare us to: Texas. It is an economically, ethnically and racially diverse red – and former Confederate – state. At the very least, their graduation rates blow ours out of the water. If this is at least partially due to funding levels (or perhaps funding distribution as Texas has a “Robin Hood” funding scheme imposed in it by a federal judge; such a scheme is opposed by both Democrats and Republicans in Georgia seeking to protect their respective urban and suburban turfs) then that is most certainly something that needs to be studied.

    • backer2 says:

      I agree that comparing Georgia spending with a whole bunch of other states that have education problems is meaningless. This especially is true when you talk about things that states like Tennessee and Louisiana are doing. Using the K-12 Achievement in these Education Week rankings (, we are not doing badly compared to our peers (look at raw numbers, not their assigned grades). We are 17th in the nation in achievement and 3rd to FL and VA in the South (defined here as the states of the Confederacy). When you look at inflation adjusted spending per pupil, we are very close to FL and VA spending. Most of the schools ahead of us in achievement are also spending quite a bit more money per student including Vermont, which adjusted for inflation spends twice the amount that Georgia does (and also has a Top 5 ranking in achievement for their investment). That said, money doesn’t cure everything as shown by Alaska, which spends almost double what we do, but is behind us in achievement (although one could argue that Alaska is a VERY rural state, so most of their population probably looks like South Georgia educationally. States like Massachusetts make investments in education.

      Student Scholarship Organizations – Demand is what you would expect from a government giveaway. Just like programs to give away cell phones, if the government offers to pay a portion of your kid’s private school, why would you not take it. Since there is no restriction on income of said recipient and a veil of secrecy over who receives the scholarships, it is hard to take much of anything away from the scholarship. All the talk about accountability, SSO’s come up severely lacking besides $58m of taxpayer money vanished.

  3. Nick Chester says:

    Unfortunately our public education system has numerous problems. Money, as it stands right now, may not even be in the top three. Unfortunately, our state leaders may not be serious about fixing education or even making it better. The focus appears more to be on how to do it cheaper.

    However, in the way of proposing some concrete solutions lets start here:

    In exchange for less state funding the state agrees to relax and/or do away with state law, state board rules and procedures that actually require local school systems to spend state unfunded money. This appears to be the low hanging fruit of proposals but is generally the real test of any reform.

    Next, do away with any state Board of Education rule or state law that is currently or has been subject to the waiver process. Take class size for example. The state has been granting waivers for class size for several years now. Maybe, just maybe, if you have to grant a waiver every year you should not require it.

  4. saltycracker says:

    It would be interesting to read a survey of the 5 to 15 year classroom time teachers (experienced, still dedicated, but not burned out and holding on for early retirement).

  5. John Konop says:

    The problem is with broad brushing education issues in Georgia. The truth is in many of the metro areas our schools compare with top private schools Wheeler math and science academy, Walton Woodstock, Milton……all very good high schools…. In some areas the schools are great…..It is very insulting to the students, parents, teachers the consistent one stop bashing of all schools…You cannot fix a problem unless you understand all the facts….With that said all schools need to move toward a goal of having students skilled work ready and or prepared for higher education after 12th grade. I do think we are moving in the right direction, under the leadership of Casey Cagle….

  6. gcp says:

    Yes, it’s not all about the money. Two schools in Gwinnett less than five miles apart and one consistently outperforms the other. Could the difference be due to child’s home life and parental involvement? I think so.

    • John Konop says:

      I agree that helps….the biggest factor is aptitude…..if you match the proper curriculum to students it works….The reason the wealthy communities have better schools, is the curriculum matches the student body aptitude ie college educated parents with college/AP options…In our community the students left behind in the past were non higher education kids….I give our community credit, because we added other options for vo-tech students…btw it works….As you know I have been advocating tracking students for years based on aptitude….That is really the big battle….the strange part is you have people on both sides anti-common core and pro common-core debating that their curriculum can somehow magically change aptitude….Instead of trying to change people… why not foster their skill sets in life?

      • blakeage80 says:

        I pretty much agree with this, John. We have to get over the thinking you’re describing. At some point in a child’s life, we have to accept that their aptitude is already apparent and allow them to take the road best for them instead of forcing them down the path a lot of educators has decided is best for all. We aren’t all rocket scientists and we aren’t all plumbers. We have to quit attaching a stigma to vo-tech or a person ‘being good with their hands’ in general.

        • benevolus says:

          I agree with this except I don’t think it is the educators who are forcing the path. It is politicians, parents, and administrators. I daresay the teachers pretty much know right away what path a kid should be on. Those paths just aren’t really available and we don’t trust teachers enough to let them make that determination anyway.

    • Charlie says:

      Expectations of the parents/family are one of the keys to virtually every charter school and most private schools I’m familiar with, including the two we visited in DC a couple of weeks ago. Generally the involved parents will have children that perform better, regardless of which school they’re in. I see no problem with allowing the children with these parents to move into schools where they can excel to their highest potential, rather than hold them back and expect them to help prop up the other students as well.

      • benevolus says:

        The problem would be if it harms the chances of other kids. We need to consider the ramifications of our decisions.

      • Jill says:

        Charlie, I have a problem with letting parent involvement drive decisions about the education of all students in the public education system. Public education by definition should serve all students not just the ones whose parents get involved. Yes it’s important to a child’s success to have their parent/guardian engaged in the educational process but we can’t just shaft kids because their parents can’t or don’t do the right thing.

        That’s the difference between public and private education. How to solve it? If anybody can find ways to improve GA’s system, it’ll be you.

        I know it’s gotten bad enough that after 23 years I left and I won’t go back.

        • Charlie says:

          I know that’s bad, given you’re both a career educator and a child of a career educator(s?).

          I frankly don’t know how to fix it all at once. No one does. While we figure it out I have no problem letting the children escape the worst systems that can, any way they can. It’s unconscionable to condemn some because we can’t save them all.

          This will likely make the problem worse for those who are left behind. You can also say that would further isolate the problem(s).

          This is a broad problem that is much about society as it is about education. I hope we can fix it for everyone, but I’ve looked in a lot of kids eyes in the last couple of weeks as I toured their schools. I got the stories of where they were coming from. I heard their parents talk about why they wanted them out of their old schools.

          Main reason?

          Wasn’t opportunity. Wasn’t better teachers. Wasn’t a rigorous environment that would instill discipline. It was for their kids physical safety. Freaking safety.

          I’m no longer worried about waiting until we can save everyone. We need to save every kid that we can.

  7. Chamblee says:

    Do any of the funding models take Georgia’s unique county system into effect? In the same vein that Alaska spends so much per student – are we spending more money than necessary by not letting smaller counties combine school districts to maximize resources (maybe one county does vocational and one does college prep, or one central school offers both).

    • Charlie says:

      “Not letting smaller counties combine…”?

      You mean not forcing them to? Because I’m not aware of any two counties ever being denied a request to combine. But that would require one sheriff, one school superintendent, and one of every other titled position, multiple commissioners, and many staff/administrators to essentially give up good government jobs and personal power/fiefdoms.

      Sounds great on paper if you’re sitting in Chamblee. Sounds a lot more ominous if you’re in a part of the state with few employment opportunities outside of government, and where population isn’t growing or is shrinking.

      Don’t expect any counties to offer up consolidation unless at least one is flat broke and/or unless there’s a huge carrot offered for them to do so.

      • saltycracker says:

        Are there any subsidies out of balance to population preventing the small counties from going broke ?

        • Charlie says:

          I’m not aware of any. One of the biggest problems with many of these counties is the lack of a tax digest. They have land, but little else. Sales taxes in counties with little or no commerce don’t raise a lot of revenue for government services. And land in conservation easements and without many structures doesn’t yield a lot of ad valorem revenue.

          So they’re kind of boxed in, able to maintain status quo, but not a lot of tax base to leverage into infrastructure, better education or medical facilities, etc. And asking them to give up a lot of local power to then reinvest that money into a vision no one has yet to paint, locally or from the state….we’ll be at 159 counties for quite some time most likely.

          • saltycracker says:

            Ok – don’t know how the transfer between counties or other state subsidies work must be per pupil…just know Cherokee’s super isn’t happy about what goes on…

            • John Konop says:


              We are a donor county from what I hear…I think it is a robin hood plan from county to county via tax revenue….the one issue both Dr P and Chip Rogers both were not supporting via education….:)

            • Charlie says:

              If you’re talking about QBE formulas an off the cuff scan indicates that uber-rural counties get a higher percentage of their local budgets from the state, but I frankly don’t understand the formula can can’t say that consolidation would affect the per-pupil amount these counties get.

              If I can find the link I was using a couple of weeks ago that shows local and state funding by system I’ll post it and others can help crowdsource your answer.

              • gcp says:

                GATE cards aggravate the lack of sales tax revenue. A half million less sales tax in Gwinnett is not that big a deal but in Decatur County it could be significant.

                • Will Durant says:

                  Looks like at least 30 counties are down more than 15% in sales tax revenue due to GATE cards. The Ag commissioner has hired 2 investigators though I’m not sure how they will investigate as there is no paper trail required. Not all of the losses are due to fraud however as unlike office equipment or forklifts for conventional businesses, “farmers” and agribusinesses now get to exempt their equipment. A sales tax exemption on a $300K combine ain’t hay either.

                  • gcp says:

                    No telling how many gates have been issued and to whom they are issued. Strangely my final utility bill from 2014 reminded me to “renew” my gate card and I don’t even have one. Would be interesting to know how many legislators have one.

    • Ellynn says:

      The other issue is the area of coverage of adding two counties systems together. Look at Emanuel Co., its almost 40 mile from line to line. Then add Johnson County. You run the risk of one school system over 70 miles wide. The logistic would kill any savings. You would still need two high schools, two middle schools, two football coaches, ect… Then add double the bus routes. You might save on Adminitration on same levels, but one of the main facters in Super. pay is the number of students and the number of schools you are in charge of, so it’s not a complete 50/50 cost savings.

      • John Konop says:

        That is why we need to promote on line, FaceTime…..options….especially in high school…..You could have AP, joint enrollment and many certifacation classes taught that way…..

        • Ellynn says:

          And the bandwidth to cover all this comes from where…? I know of a county school system who’s fastest service is dial up. Not joking. The student ratio is so low that E-Rate would up grade the system, but their is only local cable and phone providers. Closet option line is over 20 miles away, and you need Dept of Defense say so to cross sections of the land.

  8. Jill says:

    Funding in QBE is based on the concept of “full time equivalent student”. A basic regular education student costs “X” to educate and then all other funding is a percentage of that base amount. So if you have a lot of special education students (they cost more to educate) then you get additional funding for those students. But there are lots of other complicated factors like there is a definition of what a base school has to have in terms of enrollment in order to earn a full time principal, assistant principal, librarian, superintendent, curriculum coordinator, etc.

    Larger districts with enough tax digest supplement what they earn from the state with local tax dollars. There are plenty of districts in GA that aren’t able to add much to the funding that comes from the state. There is at least one district – can’t remember the name – which doesn’t earn a full-time superintendent

  9. George Chidi says:

    This is the conversation we need to have, and thank you.

    You’re right. It’s not just about money, at least money in schools. Georgia does spend about 20 percent less on education than the national average … but so do many other states with far better outcomes. Adjusted for cost of living, we’re about average.

    But school quality as measured by per capita spending contributes only about a quarter of the expected outcome a student might face. The single greatest contributor to education outcomes … is parental income. Richer students do better in school than poorer students, with little regard to the “quality” of the school.

    And Georgia is the patron saint of wealth disparity problems in the United States.

    Our rich — black and white — are really rich. Our poor — black and white — are really, really poor. We have far more poor children than rich ones. So even though our per-pupil spending is within one standard deviation of average (on the low end of that, but still), the median income of our student body is incredibly low.

    Personal income per student enrolled is 48 out of 50 states. About 30 percent of all jobs in Georgia have a median annual pay below 100% poverty threshold for a family of four. Overall poverty is 47 out of 50 states. Roughly half of all children in Georgia’s schools are poor or low income. Not children in public school — all children.

    You want to fix education? Raise wages for the working class, any way you can. Reduce poverty. Create jobs for parents.

    • John Konop says:


      I agree income is key….skills for better jobs are a big factor for income….We have a national shortage of plumbers, welders, truck drivers, auto mechanics…..if we filled the shortage….we would see a major impact on the economy by thier spending……that would drive other areas of the economy…The reason we fell behind was via an ill thought out strategy on 2 fronts,…No Child Left Behind gutted vo-tech programs…..and we created a college prep or out system….verse a goal of training students for skilled work and or higher education…..second we created scarlet letter job anchor via the ” War on Drugs”….the combination was toxic in lower income areas….

    • saltycracker says:

      George and John,

      Don’t agree. The cart is the job, the horse is the education.

      Providing good paying union jobs at the plant got kids just getting by in high school to get to that job. When the job moved on they were lost in Michigan and moved to Orlando for minimum wage or sold drugs.

      • blakeage80 says:

        “When the job moved on they were lost in Michigan and moved to Orlando for minimum wage or sold drugs.”

        Why does that sound like the plot for a Kevin Smith movie?

      • John Konop says:

        I am on an I pad….you can google many studies on wages..skilled mechanics, welders….make more than liberal arts degree graduates on a macro….also when you factor in student debt….the numbers are even worse…

  10. saltycracker says:

    Legalizing drugs would eliminate jobs on both sides.
    It has to go hand in hand with education like getting behind go-tech schools and a change in how we deliver some basic education.

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