By Cedric Johnson
As local school boards across Georgia finalize K-12 budgets for the coming school year, they are feeling the squeeze not just from a still-struggling economy, but from a decade of trends and policy decisions that have left schools ill-equipped to meet the needs of families and employers.
Media recently reported on the DeKalb County school system’s struggle to close an $85 million budget deficit. With little reserve funding available, the article quotes one state senator as warning, “If they don’t rebuild the surplus, I’ll talk to SACS,” referring to the regional entity that evaluates and accredits schools. The senator recommends cutting teacher pay instead of raising taxes to close the deficit.
While the senator’s preferred solution may help end the current budget crisis, it does not address the key reasons that schools throughout the state are in a similar bind.
The budget crunch is not simply a result of our economic woes. Trends in K-12 education financing over the last decade have also played a big role, as the Georgia Budget Policy Institute highlights in its recent report FY 2013 Budget Analysis: PK-12 Education.
Three particular developments help explain how Georgia’s public schools arrived at their current predicament.
First, Georgia’s K-12 student population has increased tremendously and at a much faster rate than other states. Since 2000, enrollment in Georgia’s public schools increased by 230,000 additional students. More than 1.6 million students will enter public K-12 classrooms in Georgia for the 2013 school year, representing the eighth-largest elementary and secondary school system in the United States.
Even though schools need more resources to cope with the surge in students, state support for public education has steadily declined over the last decade. Lawmakers have cut the state’s core funding program for K-12 education by$5.7 billion since 2003, with most of these cuts occurring over the past four years. That equates to a loss of around $600 per student, or $15,000 for a classroom of 25 students, annually since the 2009 school year. When adjusted for inflation, per pupil spending is now at its lowest level in over 10 years.
Third, responsibility for funding public schools has steadily shifted from the state to the local level. Whereas the state provided 60 percent of funding for K-12 education in 2000, it only provided 50 percent by 2010. While that might not seem like a huge change, a 1 percent shift in funding responsibility equated to $131 million in 2011.Property taxes are the major local revenue source for public school funding, and declining property values in the wake of the Great Recession have only contributed to school districts’ challenges.
If they are not addressed, these demographic and financial trends ensure Georgia schools will continue to face budget deficits in the years ahead. That should be sobering to policymakers at a time when education is more important than ever to creating a strong economy and nurturing the kind of jobs that are a ticket to the middle class.
While it is important to stretch dollars in the wake of the state’s budget crisis, Georgia simply cannot expect to build a world-class workforce that can compete for good paying jobs without making an adequate investment in public education.
Cedric Johnson is the education policy analyst of the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute, a nonpartisan nonprofit providing research and analysis of the state budget and impact of policy decisions.