Momentum builds for revised Georgia education funding

By Walter C. Jones
Morris News Service
ATLANTA – Current statewide rules on class size, staffing and teacher salaries could be replaced by decisions made by individual school boards or principals under a concept that is gaining support in Georgia.
The Georgia Chamber of Commerce recently threw its backing behind student-based funding. It's the name given to a funding process that gives wide latitude to local administrators.
It's based on each student's needs rather than statewide staffing formulas. High-schoolers would qualify for more than third-graders. Schools having many students with handicaps or needing reading tutors would get more than those with mostly average kids.
Local officials would have the power to offer bigger paychecks to attract and retain sought-after teachers, buy classroom technology instead of textbooks or prioritize laboratories over shop class, for example.
Under the current funding formula in use for 27 years, only the state can make such changes, and only uniform statewide. As a result, education advocates who point to the need for more resources have long sought greater funds to the whole system.
"Some would tell you that the answer is more money. In this economy, the simple fact is that the state does not — nor will it at any time in the foreseeable future — have the ability to significantly increase the amount of funding dedicated to education," wrote Chamber President Chris Clark in the introduction to a 48-page report the organization released in November. "This led the Georgia Chamber to ask an important question. Is it possible to create better outcomes within the current financial restraints?"
The report's release included a quote from Gov. Nathan Deal which suggests how much traction the idea is gaining.
“It’s heartening to see organizations like the Georgia Chamber stepping forward to contribute to our work in this area with the type of research and policy thinking reflected in this report," he said. "The report and its recommendations deserve serious consideration.”
A commission the governor appointed two years ago just wrapped up a review of the current funding formula established in the Quality Basic Education Act of 1985. The commission's recommendations will come before the General Assembly when it convenes Jan. 14.
The recommendations include relatively low-dollar adjustments for support functions like nurses, library clerks and school buses. They avoid the factors accounting for the largest expenses, class size and teacher pay.
Members of the commission briefly discussed switching to student-based funding, only to push it aside because it's only been tried by some individual districts in other states. 
In order for Georgia to become the first state to implement it in a big way, planning and politics would be considerations, according to Kelly McCutchen, president of the market-based think tank Georgia Public Policy Foundation.
"The caution has to be that this QBE formula has been around for a while. ... Any big changing to it is going to have to be done over a period of time," he said.
One reason is that any funding changes will leave some districts or schools with less money. McCutchen recommends phasing in the transition to give administrators time to adjust.
Another reason is that most principals need to get up to speed, according to Naomi Calvo, a consulting manager at Education Resource Strategies with expertise in districts' use of student-based funding.
"Will principals do the right things with their newfound autonomy? Since most principals do not have prior experience with aligning resources around their instructional goals, districts must provide intensive support and training so that principals can budget effectively," she wrote in District Administration magazine.
Under the Chamber of Commerce concept, the principals would also be more accountable for the quality of these added decisions. To hold them accountable requires a robust data base to tract student achievement and evaluate school performance.
Politics could be the biggest reason for delay.
Eliminating the state's rules on class size and uniform base salaries may stir up opposition.
While it would give principals freedom to pay more to a science teacher or buy computers instead of hiring teacher aides, educators accustomed to getting pay increases with seniority and additional degrees may balk. Research cited in the Chamber of Commerce report says neither seniority nor advanced degrees play much of a role in student achievement.
For now, a spokesman for the state's largest teacher organization, Tim Callahan of the Professional Association of Georgia Educators, said the organization is keeping an open mind.
"The formula that we have, I don't think anyone is particularly happy with it. I don't think educators are and I don't think legislators are," he said. "It's certainly a time for new ideas and new thinking."
So far, there is no legislation setting up this wholesale funding change. McCutchen, though, hopes a resolution will pass creating a committee to study it.

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