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Board member says reform of education funding put on hiatus years ago

POSTED: March 23, 2009 11:36 p.m.

ATLANTA — Work on revamping Georgia’s more than 20-year-old education funding formula has come to a halt as the state deals with the worst fiscal crisis in decades.

The Investing in Educational Excellence task force, often called IE2, was convened four years ago by Gov. Sonny Perdue after many said the Quality Basic Education formula was too clunky and no longer relevant to how schools operate, particularly in districts experiencing explosive enrollment growth.

The Associated Press has reported that the group hasn’t met in months, stymied by the state’s $2.6 billion budget hole that has led to cuts, furloughs and layoffs in every state agency.

But Guy Middleton, a former state senator who was on the governor’s roughly 20-member IE2 committee, told The Times the committee has not met since December 2007.

"We spent many hours meeting, but then the governor did not re-up the IE2 beyond that three-year period," Middleton said.

Middleton, who also served on the state Board of Education, said he believes education should never be put on the back burner and the task force should be reconvened.

But task force Chairman Dean Alford has a different take on the committee’s status.

"We recognize right now the state is in uncharted waters and their attention needs to be focused on those efforts," Alford said.

The funding formula was created in 1985 to allocate state money to schools, but many of the ratios used are outdated..

The formula also uses enrollment numbers that are a year old rather than trying to forecast how large a school’s student body will be. In addition, the formula doesn’t plan for technology costs, the price of maintaining newer facilities and the rising cost of busing students.

"The governor doesn’t believe the formula is an effective way to do funding in the state," said Perdue spokesman Bert Brantley.

But education advocates say a new formula would produce funding recommendations even higher than what the current calculation generates, which is why budget officials have stopped the task force’s work.

"That fiscal reality hit home earlier this year with the leadership in the state," said Herb Garrett, executive director of the Georgia School Superintendents Association. "I just don’t think they can roll something out that clearly would result in a massive new outlay of money and expect that to be warmly received in the fiscal crisis we’re in."

Middleton said the IE2 committee was not initiated to raise the level of funding for education, but to recommend a different methodology for funding education.

"I think there ought to be an ongoing effort to help streamline and make better decisions in education," he said. "... It has nothing to do with money at this point. It has to do with continuing to try to come up with the right solutions for education in our state."

Middleton said "just throwing dollars indiscriminately at education isn’t the answer, either." He said he was disappointed the committee never really got to the "heart of the issues," such as school systems’ equalization grants and local shares, which differ between counties based on property tax digests.

"Education has got to be a top priority, and the dollars have to be pinpointed and well spent," he said.

Hall County schools Superintendent Will Schofield calls the disbanding of IE2 "frustrating." He said the fundamentals of the state funding formula aren’t what plague him.

"I’m probably one of the few, but I never had a problem with QBE. I just had a problem with the fact that we never wanted to fund it," Schofield said.

Schools have rarely received all the funding recommended by the formula because the state isn’t legally obligated to match the calculation. Although the state typically increases education funding each year — with $6.2 billion budgeted for this year — schools have received more than $1 billion less than what the formula called for in the past six years, according to state documents.

Even when the state’s economy was healthy, schools received between $100 million and $300 million less than they needed each year.

Education experts worry that trend won’t stop, even if the formula changes.

The task force drew criticism in January 2007 from education experts who said the group was taking too long. More than two years later, the state still doesn’t have a replacement for the Quality Basic Education formula as schools struggle with empty coffers.

Schofield said he would like to see state leaders meet to devise a plan for how the state will pay for vital services like education in these "incredibly dramatic" times.

"So if not IE2, I guess my question would be, ‘Who is going to meet?’" Schofield said. "I mean, who is going to come forward with some recommendations and some funding formulas that will work in these austere times? Because I haven’t seen it yet."

Times staff writer Jessica Jordan contributed to this article.



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