Committee to propose school funding reform

ATLANTA - After three years of work, a committee created to overhaul the way Georgia funds public schools is about to propose a simple tradeoff: flexibility for accountability.

Getting away from the rigidity of the current one-size-fits-all approach, school districts willing to be held more accountable for the performance of their students would be given more flexibility to achieve their goals.

"We're going to try to give the systems some choices," said Dean Alford of Conyers, chairman of the Education Finance Task Force and a former member of the state Board of Education. "If they think they have a better way, great. But there has to be a higher level of accountability."

By and large, the legislators who will be asked to approve the committee's recommendations and the educators who will be asked to implement them embrace the concept behind the proposed changes.

But some are worried that lawmakers will be considering a new education financing model at the same time they take up House Speaker Glenn Richardson's plan to abolish school property taxes.

"We're going to give (schools) more flexibility. Fine," said Rep. Jeanette Jamieson, D-Toccoa, a member of the House Education Committee and the panel's former chairman. "(But) what waits in the wings is to see what effect the speaker's tax bill will have on school systems."

Different models

The focal point of the recommendations is what task force members call a new partnership between the state and local school districts.

Instead of a single funding model, the Quality Basic Education formula that's been around since the 1980s, systems would be able to choose between five models.

They would range from the least flexible, the current model, to the charter system model authorized this year by the General Assembly, which would give districts the most flexibility.

"If you like where you are, if you think you're doing the best you can, you can stick with the QBE model," said Alvin Wilbanks, superintendent of Gwinnett County Public Schools and chairman of the task force subcommittee that developed the proposal.

"(But) if you're successful and if your performance earns it, you should be given more flexibility."

Alford said he expects the larger school districts will be the most likely to take advantage of the offer.

"Those systems have many different, unique schools," he said. "They'll need a high degree of flexibility."

Alford said that with 180 school districts of all shapes and sizes scattered across Georgia, abandoning a single method of state financing of public education for a variable approach makes sense.

But Tim Callahan, spokesman for the 72,000-member Professional Association of Georgia Educators, said teachers are worried that the state may not have the money to make the new partnership work.

Downward spiral

The current formula has been hit with austerity cuts every year since Gov. Sonny Perdue took office, while the percentage of the state budget dedicated to public schools has been steadily declining.

On top of that, Callahan said, teachers are afraid that the speaker's tax plan would take more money away from the schools.

"Everything is under a cloud right now," he said. "With education getting a large part of the state budget, there's a lot of concern that the work the task force is doing will collide with those who are looking to reduce state government. That could be a bad collision."

Another looming uncertainty is a lawsuit filed by a group of mostly rural school districts charging the state with failing to put enough money into public education.

Joe Martin, executive director of the Consortium for Adequate School Funding in Georgia, said it's evident that what the task force is recommending would cost more than the current QBE model. Yet, the committee has not identified where that additional money would come from, he said.

Martin said the combination of Richardson's tax plan and the lack of funding tied to the task force's work shows why the lawsuit was necessary.

"We just can't expect any help from the state, at least not voluntarily," he said.

Delay undesirable

But Alford said it would be counterproductive to withhold the task force's recommendations from the legislature while waiting for a financial commitment.

"The reason we took up the issue of changing the partnership was that the current partnership is a very expensive way to do business," he said. "If you have a bad business model, no matter how much money you have, you're not going to get good results."

Added Wilbanks: "If we had more flexibility with the same amount of money, we could do a much better job."

Alford said he's not worried that lawmakers won't find the time to deal with the task force's suggestions because of other business.

This winter's session is expected to be packed with pressing priorities, including water, transportation, indigent defense and various tax and spending reforms.

"Education has to be one of the top two or three issues," Alford said. "It relates directly to our ability to compete in the global marketplace. The legislature recognizes that."

Dave Williams can be reached at dave.williams @rockdalecitizen.com.