Friday, November 24, 2006

The fight for school funding

Posted By on Fri, Nov 24, 2006 at 2:57 PM

The battle rages on all fronts.

Few would disagree with the state Constitution that children in Georgia are owed an "adequate" education. But what that entails exactly has embroiled two sides in a legal fight over funding in Georgia's schools. After failing to reach an initial agreement with the Consortium for Adequate School Funding in Georgia, the state has hired big-shot law firm Sutherland, Asbill and Brennan of Atlanta to grapple with the consortium's lawsuit in the courtroom.

The consortium is retaining its own legal team.

"We're determined to go to trial," says Joe Martin, the consortium's executive director. "ÉIt would be an acrimonious trial. A public relations debacle for the state. They'll outspend us. They'll be rougher and tougher than we are, but we're not going to settle for something that isn't real."

Everything hinges on the modern-day, inflation-adjusted definition of adequacy, which Martin and his concerned citizens' group contend the state is not fulfilling for every student in Georgia.

"It's one thing to agree on principle," Martin says. "It's another to have something measurable."

The courtroom is not the only venue where the issue of adequate schools funding is being debated.

From the beginning, the consortium has waged its fight for adequate funding on a line parallel to the actions of Gov. Sonny Perdue's Education Finance Task Force, which for two years has been studying ways to better fund Georgia's school districts: 180 in all, each with different needs. A former legislator, Dean Alford chairs the task force, and agrees with the consortium that the current funding method is outdated.

"We need to start over with a clean piece of paper," says the task force chair. "We're building a cost model for elementary school. We hope to replace the QBE (Quality Based Education) formula, which is 21 years old, with IE squared: Investing in Educational Excellence."

The current QBE formula now dictates how 55 percent of the state's $18 billion budget (or $30 billion, with the inclusion of federal aid) is allocated to Georgia's schools, including colleges. Alford says the average appropriation per child in the state of Georgia is $7,500 of state, federal and local dollars. That's $13,000 on the high end, and $5,000 on the low end. The federal government contributes about 7 or 8 percent in education funding. The state contributes 60 percent. The rest of the money comes from local property taxes.

When the task force reforms the funding formula, in Alford's words, it's going to come down to them saying: "We need this, and this is the amount of money we need and this is how we finance it."

"Something has to be worked out," says Sen. Vincent Fort, D-Atlanta, who sits on the Senate Education and Youth Committee. "Either we work it out or the courts are going to work it out. I'm looking forward to what these findings (from the task force) are going to be. There's got to be some compromise. Property taxes should not be the full measure. The state must dedicate funds to deal with the inequities. Should Gwinnett and Twiggs be at the same level? I don't know. But it's got to be more equitable."

The task force anticipates completing an elementary school cost model by the end of June. Fort says he worries about early murmuring in the Legislature of using a sales tax to fund the schools.

"That's a bad idea," the senator says. "Sales taxes fluctuate with the economy so much that it would create ups and downs."

And there are those who continue to doubt that the state will be able to make significant headway on the task-force front.

Carl Bethune, superintendent of poor, rural minority district Jefferson County, serves as chairman of the board of directors for the consortium. Like Martin, at this point he anticipates little short of a hard-nosed trial finally settling the issue of adequate funding.

"Is the lawsuit close to being resolved?" Bethune says. "I would say not. There are some points we agreed on. I don't think either side has said that we are near a resolution. We're still a long ways away. There are six basic points when it comes to funding. The whole issue has been adequacy, which means adequacy for every district, not just rural districts."

Unfunded state mandates in particular are hitting Bethune's district hard, he says.

"We do struggle with the class-size issue in meeting state-mandated class sizes," the superintendent says. "Then there are physical-plant costs -- utilities, gas, electrical. After-school programs are essential. Extended learning hours. Transportation to and from those opportunities. Those are the kinds of things that aren't in the formula."

The trouble for Bethune is when the state tells him he must comply with a new program, and then leaves it to him and his district to raise the money to fund that program. There simply aren't a lot of places to go to get the money in Jefferson County.

"A lot of industry closed with the NAFTA treaties," Bethune says. "A lot of textile mills shut down. Lots of jobs were lost. The biggest employer in the county is the school district. There is very little industry here. Many people commute to Augusta."

Alford says he's well aware of the plight of school districts such as Bethune's.

Having last met on Nov. 17, the task force plans to recommend to Gov. Sonny Perdue that he work with the Assembly in the coming session to minimize the financial impact of legislation on the school districts.

Rep. Brooks Coleman, R-Duluth, chair of the House Education Committee, worked in education for 32 years, serving as a sixth-grade teacher and school principal.

He said he and his fellow lawmakers would definitely be taking the task force's recommendation into account.

"I worked under education reforms," Coleman says. "They all sounded good -- but they were never funded then, and never looked at to cap inflation."

Whatever the Legislature will accomplish in keeping those costs down, those efforts will be mostly cosmetic until either the task force submits its final recommendation for school funding and the Legislature acts on it, or the consortium forces the issue to a conclusion in the courts.

Whichever venue ends up providing that spark for the more dramatic changes, both the task force and the consortium are convinced those changes must occur if the state is to adequately serve all of the children.

"Remember how when you used to go fishing as a kid and you'd get the line tangled and you'd try to untangle it, and try and try, until you realized finally that you just had to get your knife out and cut the whole line?" Alford says. "That's the situation we've got with the current funding formula. It must be redone."

-- Max Pizarro

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