By Johnny Jackson
Education funding is among "The Top 10 Issues to Watch in 2008," according to the Georgia Partnership for Excellence in Education, a non-profit education research and advocacy organization.
In its annual top-ten issues list, released during the Partnership's Second Annual Media Symposium held in Atlanta on Wednesday, researchers in the organization included education funding as a pivotal matter in 2008, involving state and local governments.
Another of those must-watch matters is a lawsuit filed by a consortium of rural school systems, who say they do not receive adequate school funding from the state. The issue will go to trial in September.
State education officials are also waiting for the comprehensive recommendations of the Governor's Education Finance Task Force, a panel of educators, business leaders, and lawmakers organized in 2003 to study and make recommendations on how schools should be funded.
Perhaps, one of the most popular debates in education now deals with a proposal to reform Georgia's tax structure. The proposal would effectively replace the ad valorem tax for education with a statewide sales tax.
"Changing our tax system would have a ripple effect," said Susan Walker, the Partnership's director of policy and research.
Proponents of the tax reform proposal believe it will serve the purpose of relieving the property owner of paying increasing ad valorem taxes on their automobiles and homes.
Opponents say the proposal would shift the tax burden to a revenue source (sales tax) that would be economically more volatile than the current (ad valorem) tax system.
The tax reform is especially pivotal, school officials say, because school systems statewide have experienced local budget deficits due, in part, to state education funding cuts.
This year, only about 56 percent of the state's general funds budget was earmarked as education funding - the result of changes to the state's 1986 Quality Basic Education [QBE] Act funding formula to allow education funding cuts in order to recoup the state's revenue shortfalls.
Rep. Brooks Coleman (R-Duluth) and Sen. Dan Weber (R-Dunwoody), panelists at the symposium, say they are advocates for reviving educational funding based on the QBE formula.
"I think we need to fully restore the QBE formula," said Coleman, House Chairman of the Education Committee.
Restoring the QBE formula would effectively give the state's local school systems back the roughly $140 million they would receive in state funding cuts for the year. But over the years, without restoration, area systems have experienced such cuts in the millions.
"I think we ought to restore QBE funding...," Weber said. "But I don't think that's enough."
With about $169 million budgeted from state funding, officials with the Henry County School System are expecting to receive more than $3 million in state funding cuts before this fiscal year ends. The Clayton County School System will experience more than $4 million in cuts after receiving $260 million in state funding.
Since 2003, when the state began imposing education funding cuts, Henry has received more than $25 million in state "austerity reductions." Clayton's state funding has been cut by more than $43 million over that time.
"You can't justify it today," said Rep. DuBose Porter (D-Dublin), House Minority Leader. "We're putting too much pressure on local school systems."
Statewide school system's have swallowed the cuts to the tune of about $1.5 billion and counting, Porter argued, speaking at the symposium.
Systems could receive an additional $141.5 million in cuts this upcoming fiscal year, depending on Gov. Sonny Perdue's final budget proposal, he added.
Porter says that local systems are increasingly responsible for their education funding, placing increased burdens on local tax payers in the form of local property and sales taxes for education.
The state was responsible for 60 percent of local school system revenues in 2001, leaving local systems to earn 40 percent of their revenue. But systems, in 2007, had to earn 44 percent of their revenues. Porter says he wants to bring the QBE formula back to its 60-40 share for state-local revenues.
"When it comes to the issue of school funding, Georgia policymakers will be faced with a host of complex and controversial decision points," said Susan Walker of the Partnership. "As Georgia's population and student enrollment continue to grow, the need for increased revenue is even more critical. With at least three major developments in school funding simmering, Georgians have a lot to watch for in 2008."
The Parnership's other nine Top 10 Issues are titled: "Poverty, Diversity, and the Reality of Georgia's Demographic Changes;" "Zero to Five: Critical Needs for Critical Years;" "Georgia's Still Unfinished Business in Teacher Quality;" "Charter Schools and Vouchers: Weighing Georgia's 'Options;'" "No Child Left Behind: The Federal Landscape and Georgia's Lingering Achievement Gaps;" "Great Expectations: Increasing the Rigor of High School Education;" "The Crisis of High School Dropouts and Unskilled Graduates;" "Measuring What Matters: Building a Better Information System;" and "Replacing Random Acts with a Deliberate Educational Plan."