State legislators in Gwinnett County have their hands on the policy-making levers when it comes to education in Georgia.
Two of Gwinnett’s legislators shared the issues they’re focused on entering the 2020 Legislative Session at a media symposium on Friday in Atlanta. State Sen. P.K. Martin, R-Lawrenceville, is the Senate Education and Youth Committee Chairman and Brenda Lopez Romero, D-Norcross, is on the House Education Committee.
Discussions prior to the 2020 Legislative Session, which began Monday, made it clear that limiting the ripple effects of budget and tax cuts are going to be this year’s primary focus. Gov. Brian Kemp last summer ordered most state agencies to reduce spending by 4% during the current fiscal year and by 6% during fiscal year 2021.
As legislators on different committees battle to defend their funding, Martin reinforced the fact he’s confident that Quality Basic Education Funding will remain protected from this year’s cuts.
That does not mean that tweaks to the QBE formula aren’t on the horizon, during this session or future ones. Both sides of the aisle seem to support modifying the out-dated QBE formula, which was designed in 1985. Georgia Schools Superintendent Richard Woods said on Friday it’s time for state legislators to consider modifying the formula to better address the needs of Georgia school districts. He also mentioned outside resources for supplemental funding.
“I think one of the things that potentially we could look at would be some tweaks, not a general overhaul,” Woods said. “That may be an option, or repurposing some money. When we look at our budget, we have to make sure we’re prioritizing what really counts.”
That’s more or less what Martin echoed on Friday. While he was not specific, he recognized some school districts rely on programs provided by the Department of Education, but he wants to take a closer look at all of the DOE’s programs to see if anything can be trimmed to make the budget leaner.
“We don’t need to continue funding programs that aren’t successful, but we should double down on programs that are working,” Martin said.
Lopez Romero’s concerns about QBE come from an equity perspective. She wants to see tweaks and modifications to the QBE formula to consider providing services and support on a more needs-based methodology. QBE currently determines funding for a variety of costs on a per-student basis.
The current state of the formula, she said, is not adequate.
“That’s not how we can actually account for the needs of students and that includes making the formula more equitable based on the needs of each student,” Lopez Romero said.
Leaders and education experts seem to be most concerned about the effects that potential cuts to mental and public health could have on schools. Non-academic barriers to learning can be chronic asthma, dental pain, ADHD or consistent hunger. A report from the Georgia Partnership for Excellence in Education states these issues affect more students at high-needs schools and students from economically disadvantaged families are more susceptible to dealing with these stressors outside of the classroom.
Lopez Romero mentioned an oft-quoted refrain that Georgia is the “Top State for Doing Business,” a declaration Site Selection Magazine made for the seventh consecutive year when it distinguished Georgia in 2019. Lopez Romero wants state policies intended to bolster business in Georgia to consider the economic needs of students and their families. She believes businesses that settle in Georgia should can reciprocate the state’s hospitality by hiring Georgia workers.
“We have to understand the link between the need for all of the services and programs that are highly important, particularly to those vulnerable, whether they are under the education category (or not), but they are absolutely vital if we are going to have the workforce we need by 2030,” Lopez Romero said.
In general terms, Martin downplayed the notion that there would be large sweeping policies passed during the frugal 2020 session, which happens to be an election year. He focused on the implementation of systems established in past state bills.
In May 2019, Governor Brian Kemp signed Senate Bill 48, written by Martin, into law. SB48 provides for identification of and support for students in kindergarten through third grade with dyslexia. School districts are piloting dyslexia testing and Martin wants the program to be unrolled with caution to ensure it sticks.
Martin said he’s heard the frustrations of educators when it comes to implementing new programs. They’ve complained to him that state programs often begin with one goal in mind, but then the goalposts move years later. For fear of that happening, Martin wants to ensure his policy is implemented correctly the first time.
“I’m not saying nothing’s going to happen,” Martin said. “There are going to be some things that have been discussed … but as far as seeing large changes or vision-type policy bills, I don’t know that we’re going to see that.”