Library bookshelves

The 1985 Quality Basic Education Act continues to guide the state in distributing nearly $11 billion to the state’s 1.6 million public school students.

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When Georgia lawmakers created the formula to pay for its public schools, President Ronald Reagan was celebrating the start of his second term, Purple Rain cassettes were flying off of the shelves, and children were monopolizing family TVs with their state-of-the-art Nintendo Entertainment Systems.

The White House has changed occupants six times since then, and the average high schooler now carries around more computing power in their pocket than any computer of the day, but the 1985 Quality Basic Education Act continues to guide the state in distributing nearly $11 billion to the state’s 1.6 million public school students. Georgia’s total population has roughly doubled to 11 million since 1985.

While the formula is long-lived, it is not universally beloved. Even in years when the formula is fully funded — and it went underfunded between 2002 and 2017 — critics say the formula denies flexibility to administrators and unfairly sends resources to wealthier districts. Past attempts to modernize the formula were abandoned in the face of political turbulence.

In the coming months, state lawmakers are preparing to reexamine QBE. The Senate Study Committee to Review Educational Funding Mechanisms is set to hold three meetings across the state this fall to gather input about potentially revising the formula. The first is set for Aug. 18 at the state Capitol in Atlanta, and meetings in Savannah and Columbus are scheduled to follow in September and October.

People can also submit testimony on the committee’s website.

Under the formula, each district is allocated money weighted by factors like the number of students enrolled and their grade levels and participation in programs like gifted or special education.

The system has its flaws, said Stephen Owens, education policy analyst at the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute.

Georgia is one of only six states that doesn’t allocate specific dollars to educate students living in poverty, he said. And while nearly everyone is dealing with inflation, most people only have to worry about filling up the family car, not a fleet of school buses.

“The governor and the legislature put some money in the amended (budget) for transportation the past couple years, and that’s been really helpful, but we need a systematic change to the way that it’s funded,” he said. “The costs continue to increase year after year, but the amount of funding for buses, drivers, monitors, stays the same since the year 2000. I know that’s something that keeps school finance folks up at night.”

Over the last couple of decades, public school enrollment has grown by about a quarter million students, but the amount of funding for student transportation has stayed about the same, he said.

The education allocation formula is generally sound when it’s fully funded, said Margaret Ciccarelli, legislative services director for the Professional Association of Georgia Educators, but there’s always room for improvement.

More school transportation money will be among her suggested improvements for the committee, and so will adding more money for school counselors.

School counselors are funded at a rate of one for every 450 students in Georgia, while the recommended ratio is one for every 250 students, according to PAGE, and when it comes to paying for counselors, state dollars do not follow every student.

“Schools earn QBE for gifted, and specifically special ed classrooms, and currently, they are not earning counselors for those students,” Ciccarelli said. “Currently with the growing mental health needs as a result of the pandemic, filling those counselor positions is critical.”

During this year’s Georgia School Safety and Homeland Security Conference, Gov. Brian Kemp announced millions of dollars in new grants for schools to boost their security, and school safety could be a major topic of discussion for changes to QBE, Ciccarelli said.

“School safety and school mental health and school climate are part of the same bucket,” she said. “We need more school security measures like school hardening, infrastructure upgrades, that needs to be considered as part of QBE, and also mental health supports to include those counselors.”

This is not the first time the state has considered big changes to the way the state calculates how to divvy up K-12 funding. Former Gov. Nathan Deal made revising the formula a major part of his education platform.

Cobb County Republican Sen. Lindsey Tippins, who is named to the current panel, also sat on a study committee during Deal’s administration in 2015.

“The objective of it was, best I could tell, to do away with the QBE formula and come up with a new formula all together,” he said. “I thought that was somewhat of a dangerous venture, because it looked to me like the direction was to give X amount of dollars per student and every student would be funded at the same level. That’s not possible in education because the needs level of students have different cost drivers in the delivery of different programs that may be required. Any program that has a lab-type setting or hands on equipment, those kinds of programs use more funding, and that’s one thing I like about the QBE program, is that it breaks it down.”

Tippins, who is stepping down from the Legislature at the end of the year, said he’ll enter the process with an open mind, but he’ll need convincing before approving a whole new formula.

“I’m not ruling out the adoption of a different formula, but I want to make sure that from the standpoint of adequately covering cost, it doesn’t just need to be a different formula, it needs to be a better formula,” he said. “And I think we need input from educators who are in the process of delivering education, to look at the work that’s proposed, and see if it’s practical. Also, clear, valid reasons why or why not the substitute formula would be superior to the existing formula. On anything, I’m not in favor of change for change’s sake.”

Tippins, a former Cobb school board member, has been a Senate leader in education policy since his election in 2010, and the committee’s other members are also influential legislators. The committee will be led by Senate Majority Leader Mike Dugan and include Education Committee Chair Sen. Chuck Payne, Appropriations Committee Chair Sen. Blake Tillery, Sen. Billy Hickman and Sen. Nan Orrock, the Democratic Caucus secretary and the sole Democrat on the committee.

Owens declined to predict whether this attempt at change will go better than previous go-rounds, but he said Dugan picked a strong team for the job.

“If they want to do something that comes out of this, these are the right people to have,” Owens said. “They are serious lawmakers in powerful positions, so they are well equipped to achieve what they want to do, whatever that is.”

This story comes to GPB through a reporting partnership with Georgia Recorder.