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School funding from state is ‘going backward’

Advocacy group lists top concerns for education at media symposium

POSTED: February 4, 2008 5:02 a.m.
Jeff Gill/The Times

Rep. DuBose Porter, a Dublin Democrat, talks about pressing education issues, including local school district funding, before this year's General Assembly. He was speaking Wednesday mostly to education reporters in a media symposium sponsored by the Georgia Partnership for Excellence in Education.

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ATLANTA — An education advocacy group released its top 10 issues for 2008 on Wednesday, giving no issue any particular priority.

But it was clear from the discussions that followed with education reporters statewide that how to pay for education will get a lot of legislative attention this year.

The issue surfaced time and again in the second annual media symposium sponsored by the Georgia Partnership for Excellence in Education.

The event featured presentations by partnership officials, lawmakers and 2008 Georgia Teacher of the Year Emily Jennette of Marietta.

Rep. DuBose Porter, a Democrat from Dublin, said that next fiscal year’s state budget, which takes effect July 1, calls for $141.5 million less in funding for local school systems.

The state began imposing cuts earlier this decade when a troubled economy resulted in a revenue shortfall. But even as the economy improved, the state continued the "austerity cuts," which now have added up to $1.5 billion, Porter said.

"I understand (cuts) in a recession, but you can’t justify this today," he said. "The cuts need to be restored."

Susan Walker, policy and research director for the partnership, said in covering the issue as part of her top 10 presentation that the state’s portion of education funding has dropped to 55 percent from 60 percent since 1996.

Porter said the drop in funding has placed an increased burden on residents through property taxes, which serve as the main funding source for local districts.

The original goal of the state’s Quality Basic Education Act of 1986 was for the state to increase funding to 80 percent.

"We are going backward," he said.

Sen. Dan Weber, a Republican from Dunwoody, and Rep. Brooks Coleman, a Republican from Duluth, also said they would like to see next year’s funding cut restored.

However, Weber said he believes there are more pressing issues, such as teacher quality and more flexibility for school systems that can have a greater impact on education as a whole.

"It is a lot of money. It can make a difference, but I don’t think it will turn around school districts," he said.

The rise of charter schools and charter school districts, which offer freedom from state regulations in exchange for more accountability, also stirred much talk at the symposium.

Lawmakers in the House are proposing to create the Georgia Charter Schools Commission, which would work with the Georgia Department of Education and under the auspices of the State Board of Education to develop and support charter schools in the state.

The commission would be empowered to approve or deny charter school applications, as well as terminate or decline to renew charter school contracts, tasks now handled by the state school board.

Hall County schools has applied to start a charter school, the World Languages Academy, in place of Chestnut Mountain Elementary School in South Hall this fall. Chestnut Mountain is moving to a new building off Union Church Road.

Gainesville city schools is applying for charter system status.

Officials with both districts have said they expect the state school board to decide on their applications this spring.

Legislators also talked about a bill that would expand the state’s lottery-funded pre-kindergarten program to include 3-year-olds.

Coleman said he thought the endeavor would be too costly. Besides, "I’d like to see us completely flesh out the (program for 4-year-olds)."

Statistics show that about half of Georgia’s 4-year-olds are taking advantage of the free program.

"We still have many at-risk children who aren’t in the program and I don’t think (their absence is) because (the program) is not available," Coleman said. "... I know in my community, a lot of parents are just keeping (their children) at home and not doing it.



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