0

MURPHY: Don't change school funding

The Georgia General Assembly session is now two weeks old and guess what issue is garnering the most headlines: Education.

Can't say that comes as a surprise. Governors and legislators have been bickering about school funding since before anyone reading this was born. And they still haven't got it right.

Like everyone else in the state, the academic community is bracing for the slash. No one wants to cut education, but state revenue continues to drop and education, after all, accounts for more than half ($9 billion of the $18.6 billion state budget). That's too big of a target to overlook when seeking ways to save.

For Georgia's school systems, though, it's business as usual -- Gov. Sonny Perdue's budgets have cut school spending for the last seven years.

Knowing schools will have to dig deeper, legislators proposed a series of bills that ease requirements and give school systems more flexibility so they can get more bang out of their education buck. The bills grant local school boards and administrations more flexibility on scheduling, classroom expenditures, class size, days of instruction and salary schedules.

On the local front, Gwinnett County Public Schools System has already introduced many of these concepts through its IE2 program. But one bill has definitely caught my attention: House Bill 904 is a big blip on GCPS's radar because it could cost the school system another $27 million.

It would do that by redrawing the way "equalization dollars" are distributed.

Equalization is a "Robin Hood" method of taking from the richest school districts and giving to the less wealthy. This system has been in place since 1986 and has served its purpose well. But HB 904 increases the level of "equalization."

Currently Gwinnett (considered a wealthier school system) gets $224 per student, while the "poor" school systems average $674 per student in equalization dollars. Under HB 904, Gwinnett's per-student distribution would drop to $57 and the average for the poor districts would rise to $989. The current formula gives the poorer school systems two or three times more money per student. The proposal would increase that to 12 to 17 times more.

"The Equalization Grant was put in place many years ago with the express purpose of driving additional funding to the poorest school districts in the state," GCPS Superintendent Alvin Wilbanks said. "The formula for distributing these funds, based on wealth-per-student, accomplishes that goal. Some lawmakers feel that certain metro Atlanta school districts should not receive Equalization funding, but the fact is these districts meet the criteria according to the formula that has worked well for years. HB 904 seeks to change that formula to redistribute the Equalization funds from some school districts to others, and it does nothing to help with the State's budget crisis. HB 904 should be opposed outright."

The current formula works and has done so since 1986 when the program was initiated. Taking more dollars away to redistribute the wealth is a double whammy for schools already struggling.

I hope this session of the legislature passes many bills that encourage and promote education in Georgia. HB 904 is not one of them.

The current equalization formula works well. I hope our lawmakers can see the negative impact this adjustment would have on Georgia education as a whole.

J.K. Murphy is publisher of the Gwinnett Daily Post. E-mail him at

jk.murphy@gwinnettdailypost.com.