Education was a key theme of Gov. Sonny Perdue's standard stump speech as he launched his re-election bid this month with a 20-city tour.
The Republican governor talked over and over about his decision to dedicate 70 percent of the $1.2 billion in new spending in next year's budget to Georgia's public schools.
But for every county he visited, Georgia Democrats were ready with another version of Perdue's four-year education record.
On the day he visited Gwinnett County, out came a press release charging the Perdue administration with cutting $103.2 million from Gwinnett schools since he took office in 2003, the largest hit on an individual school system imposed by cuts that total $1.25 billion statewide.
The following day, when the governor hit Albany, another Democratic missive put the cuts to Dougherty County schools at $14 million.
But Republicans say Democrats are guilty of fuzzy math. To the Democrats' claim of $1.25 billion in cuts, the Perdue campaign counters with figures showing that state spending on K-12 education has increased by more than
$1 billion during his 31⁄2 years as governor.
So which side is right? The answer is both, and neither. It depends on which part of the financial picture you're looking at.
Democrats, using numbers from Perdue's own budget office, emphasize the cuts that have taken place annually in the state's quality basic education formula since he became governor. The QBE is a formula that distributes instructional money among school districts based on student enrollment.
The 2007 budget, which Perdue signed last week, lists a "temporary QBE reduction'' of nearly $170 million during the fiscal year that starts on July 1.
"When is a reduction not a cut?'' said Emil Runge, spokesman for the Georgia Democratic Party.
Next year's QBE cut actually is an improvement over the past three fiscal years.
QBE funding was reduced by $332.8 million during each of the two previous years and by $283.5 million the year before that. When Perdue first took office in 2003, he rolled back the formula in that year's midyear budget adjustment by about $135 million.
Add those numbers and you get the $1.25 billion in cuts Democrats have been citing with growing regularity as Election Day nears.
"Those budget cuts are hitting hard,'' Runge said. "That's the reason 100 school districts have raised property taxes.''
But Perdue campaign spokesman Derrick Dickey said it's disingenuous to add all of those figures together and call them one big cumulative budget cut. He said each year's reduction should be viewed on its own as the savings the state required local school districts to achieve during that year.
"If you find savings, those savings go forward (to the following year),'' Dickey said. "You don't have to find them again. ... They're counting the same dollar four times.''
Instead of focusing just on QBE money, the Perdue campaign prefers to look at a broader picture of K-12 funding, including what the state spends on noninstructional items like school construction and student transportation.
Buoyed by stronger tax collections due to a recovering economy, the governor added $383 million in bonds to the 2007 budget for classroom construction and $58.7 million for new equipment and school buses.
Altogether, general fund spending on K-12 will have grown under Perdue from $6.1 billion in fiscal 2003 to $7.2 billion next year, the $1 billion-plus increase cited by the governor's campaign.
"At best, the only thing (Democrats) can say right now is $170 million (the fiscal 2007 QBE cut), and they can't even say that because the net education budget has increased,'' Dickey said.
By the same token, the $163 million appropriation in next year's budget to reduce class sizes that Perdue likes to tout on the campaign trail is more complicated than it appears at first blush.
What it actually represents is the difference between the $332.8 million QBE reduction that took place this year and next year's scaled back $170 million cut. In effect, just less than half of the QBE savings will be used to lower class sizes in grades K-8.
"For him to call that new money is just a bait and switch,'' Runge said.
Democrats, however, must content themselves with criticizing how the governor characterizes the money he has earmarked to lower class sizes, not the purpose of the funding.
Reducing class sizes was a major focus of education reforms steered through the General Assembly by former Gov. Roy Barnes, Perdue's Democratic predecessor.
Dave Williams is a staff writer for the Gwinnett Daily Post. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.