The severe cuts now being made at the local level reveal a new reality in the financing of Georgia’s schools. Many systems were once able to cover the decline in state support through rising property taxes, but this fallback is now gone.
The required cuts go far beyond belt-tightening. There will be larger class sizes, fewer school days and reduced programs. Furloughs and layoffs will continue.
State officials consistently say, “We’re doing the best we can.” But there are two flaws in this excuse.
The state’s legal responsibility to support K-12 education is a “primary obligation” under the Georgia Constitution. It is unconditional. The inability of local systems to fill the gap does not relieve the state of its responsibility.
Second, the state is systematically reducing its revenues through a wave of tax cuts and exemptions. The lack of funds is self-fulfilling prophesy. Our legislators cut taxes again this year without ever asking how the state will meet its obligations.
The state of Georgia is undermining our public schools. This may seem like an exaggeration, but the facts are clear.
State allotments to local systems have decreased by 24.8 percent on a per-student, inflation-adjusted basis during the past decade. Because of an unrealistic formula with another $1.1 billion in “austerity cuts,” the loss in state funds comes to more than $30,000 for a typical class this year.
Moreover, the formula to assist the least wealthy systems in Georgia was quietly cut by 41 percent in the last session, and even the reduced amount was not fully funded in the final budget.
We are harming our children, sapping the vitality of our economy, and relegating our state to an inferior status. Three out of every 10 students in Georgia are not graduating from high school with a regular diploma. Is this the path to a prosperous future?
Good schools must have capable teachers, effective leaders, active parents and sound policies, but they also need adequate resources.
Georgia spends considerably less per student than the national average. Administrative costs have been slashed in most systems, and the only way to make further reductions in total expenditures is to decrease salaries and increase class sizes.
No sensible person would ever advocate spending more without expecting results, but it’s equally foolish to pretend that our schools can perform their vital mission without paying our teachers a reasonable salary (and praising their dedicated efforts), assisting the students who need extra help, and offering a full curriculum.
The concepts of “choice” and “flexibility” are touted as easy answers to the challenges facing our schools. Of course, parents should have more choices, and our schools should be freed from unnecessary regulations.
The real question is how to serve all of our students, and not just some.
During the recent session of the General Assembly, the most heated issue was a fight over who gets to authorize charter schools, but this is just a distraction from the larger story. Charter schools can be effective, but they are not a substitute for improving all of our schools.
Some are calling for vouchers that would benefit the students who are accepted by private schools and can afford the tuition not covered by the voucher. Georgia taxpayers are already allowed to “divert” a portion of their tax payments to entities that support private schools, with very little accountability or disclosure.
Our state is slipping backward, and many of our children are not getting the education they need and deserve. Changes will have to be made in our schools, but the need for adequate support by the state cannot be ignored any longer.
(Joseph G. Martin Jr. writes on behalf of the Georgia School Funding Association.)