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Monday, May 21, 2012 - 12:40pm

Study Says Georgia Underfunds Education

Georgia’s budget cuts to education will hinder the state’s ability to reach college graduation targets and attract high-paying jobs. That’s according to a new study that says the state is underfunding K-12 education by about $1 billion each year.

The state wants to graduate 250,000 more college students by 2020 as part of an initiative that Gov. Nathan Deal launched last year.

Cedric Johnson with the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute, which published the study, says that’s a high bar to reach.

That’s because Georgia is spending less on K-12 education than it did a decade ago. As a result, students may be less prepared for college. And he says higher education fund cuts strain affordability.

“When you see the steady decline in state support for higher education and the significant growth of tuition and fees," Johnson said in an interview, "one really has to ask the question, are we positioning ourselves to meet those goals?’”

Last year, Gov. Nathan Deal appointed a commission to examine the state’s education funding. It has already made recommendations that became part of bills passed during the legislative session this year. Commission members will make more recommendations later this year.

Sen. Fran Millar sits on the commission. He says the solution isn’t simply giving more money to schools.

“If money was the answer to public education, then the Atlanta public schools would have the greatest record in the U.S.," he said in a phone interview. "I think a lot of it is how you use your money and how effectively you use it.”

Millar says schools, for example, need to make more efficient use of technology.

The Georgia General Assembly, rather than the state Department of Education, has the final say over how much money school districts receive from the state budget, says education department spokesman Matt Cardoza. He says schools are also under pressure because local property revenue is declining.

"School districts have certainly seen fewer dollars over the last several years, and with the turn in the economy they're seeing fewer at the local level, which is really coming together to create a perfect storm, especially for some of our school districts that don't have many local sources of revenue," Cardoza said. "It's definitely a difficult situation out there for our school districts."

But he says the department of education has taken a number of steps to ease the crunch. For example, some schools have received waivers allowing them to exceed set class sizes. That keeps a school from having to hire another teacher for a separate class.

Cardoza says some districts are also trimming the number of school days by adding a few minutes of instruction each day. That saves schools the cost of turning on the lights and deploying school buses to pick up students.