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Education Reform Commission: Can we talk about how much schooling costs?

The Education Reform Commission established by Gov. Nathan Deal spent a lot of time talking about money in recent months. Its members considered an alternative approach to distributing state funds that gives districts greater flexibility in using those dollars. They also discussed differences in students’ needs and changing how funds are allocated based on those needs.
However, the commission has yet to tackle the question most critical to the success of Georgia’s students: How much does it cost to educate students to the level desired by the state and its citizens? That bar is higher today than for any previous generation. Getting the answer to this question is particularly urgent for the growing number of low-income students in schools across the state. These students come to the classroom already far behind their peers from higher-income families and need the most support to reach high expectations. 
Georgia ranks ninth among the states for highest percentage of low-income students as measured by participation in the federal free- and reduced-price lunch program. Yet the state is 35th in spending per student, according to the most recent federal data. The funding model under development by the subcommittee assigned to address finances assumes the state’s current K-12 spending level will not change. The unfolding plan shifts some money to low-income students. This is an improvement over today’s distribution formula, but it does not answer the question of whether these funds will meet their needs.
Ensuring that low-income students get adequate resources is a focus of a 2007 report by the New Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce, which was chaired by Charles B. Knapp. He also is the chairman of the reform commission as well as its funding subcommittee. “Tough Choices or Tough Times” re-envisions public education, and its recommendations include a “uniform pupil-weighting funding formula,” also referred to as student-based budgeting or student-weighted formula. This is the approach that appears to be favored by the funding committee. The New Commission also called for a $19 billion increase in funding for low-income students across the nation. The report says:
“These schools will be able to afford the tutors they need, the counselors and mentors that are the birthright of richer children elsewhere. And they will have the staff needed to reach out to the community and find the community leaders in the private sector who will develop campaigns to raise the aspirations of these young people, so they come to believe that they, too, can reach the top if they work hard enough.”
Do Georgia’s schools get the money needed to provide these services to low-income students? Do they get enough money to help non-poor and poor students alike reach the levels of achievement as their peers in Massachusetts, New Jersey and other high-achieving states?
Some committee members say they are not pursuing answers to these questions because previous efforts to redo the state’s K-12 funding formula collapsed when study committees tried to calculate the cost of educating a student to a high level of achievement. Calculating the cost is a straightforward, albeit significant, undertaking. School-finance experts use methods such as evaluating investment levels and strategies of successful schools or relying on evidence-based strategies identified by research. Each method has a clear rationale and could provide a reasonable estimate to serve as a benchmark for Georgia’s policymakers. The challenge for state leaders is to summon the political will to raise the required revenue if that’s what’s needed to meet this benchmark.
The reform commission is right to ponder whether there are better ways to distribute state funds to districts. But it should not stop there. Members can do better by Georgia’s students if they determine the cost of educating Georgia’s students in a rural district like Greene County or an urban one like Gwinnett. Now is an opportune time for that review. Many districts already get freedom from spending regulations under new state laws and can use state dollars differently to better meet students’ needs. Those experiences could provide valuable data for ways districts can maximize current allocations, as well as identify places funding falls short.
Money matters in the classroom — not only how it is spent, but also how much is invested. Strong arguments make this case in a Georgia Budget and Policy Institute report issued in December.
The clock is ticking toward an August deadline, when the funding subcommittee is due to report its recommendations to the governor. Time is running short for meaningful discussions of how much money a quality education really costs.

Suggs is a senior education policy analyst for the Georgia Budget & Policy Institute, an independent think tank that says its mission is to build a more-prosperous Georgia by analyzing budget and tax policies and providing education to inspire informed debate and responsible decision-making.

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