Low-income Georgia students performed measurably worse on state tests than their high-income classmates, and the distance between the two groups is greater in Georgia than in almost any other state based on national comparisons. State legislators have an opportunity and a responsibility to do something about this, especially now that the pandemic has made matters worse. Georgia is one of only six states that does not provide additional funding to schools to educate students living in poverty, and our legislature’s failure to act is reflected in student outcomes.
Fortunately, the Georgian Senate passed Senate Resolution 650 establishing a committee to review the state’s education funding formula. The committee met twice; the next one is scheduled for Friday, October 21. The Georgia Budget and Policy Institute (GBPI), where I am a senior education policy analyst, joined other Fund Georgia’s Future coalition groups in encouraging the study committee to fix the way we fund schools so that educators can serve each child according to their needs. Lawmakers should use this committee to recommend adding opportunity weighting to the state funding formula – extra dollars to educate students living in poverty to ensure they have the resources necessary to excel.
Currently, our state’s teachers are burnt out and local schools are losing quality teachers due to stress. The Georgia Department of Education’s own report on the issue shows a profession on the brink. We are calling on educators to be miracle workers for children, teaching in schools that on average have only one counselor for every 419 students and are lucky enough to have a nurse on site. As school districts struggle to recruit and retain quality educators, it is critical that state leaders take action to ensure that students from all economic backgrounds receive a quality education in our state. Adding opportunity weighting to Georgia’s school funding formula would mean schools serving a large share of low-income students could hire more teachers and reduce turnover in areas where teachers are burned out. due to large class sizes. Education Law Center research shows that teacher attrition is highest in majority-black districts and those that serve large numbers of students living in poverty. This was partly caused by the lack of resources and the quality of teacher compensation in these districts. Smaller class sizes have the added benefit of allowing teachers to provide more individual attention to their students who need more support. An opportunity weighting would allow districts to improve the quality of learning in communities that have been deprived of opportunity by limited funding.
The benefits go beyond strengthening the teaching profession.
Georgia’s Black Belt—the pathway for rural counties with a high concentration of black students and a high proportion of students living in poverty—students rarely have the opportunity to take advanced level (AP) courses. Fifteen black belt school districts did not have a single student take an AP course in 2018. The cost of course materials may deter districts from offering these needed college-level opportunities. If lawmakers continue in this direction, these districts will only continue to be far less prepared and equipped to teach quality programs.
Additionally, an opportunity weighting could also supplement school support staff, such as counselors and nurses. Several studies show that having a sufficient number of school counselors leads to positive outcomes for low-income students, students learning English as a second language, and children exhibiting aggressive behavior or actions associated with depression. . Hiring additional counselors has also proven to be financially convenient, as it is more cost-effective than alternative policies aimed at addressing the socio-emotional needs of students.
The idea of adding funding for economically disadvantaged students is not new, nor revolutionary. Almost all states provide this type of additional funding and generally have bipartisan support. In fact, Governor Nathan Deal’s Education Reform Commission recommended adding an opportunity weighting to provide funding to low-income students in 2015. The need for an opportunity weighting was exacerbated by the persistent cuts in the state education budget over the past two decades. The FY2023 budget reinstated significant cuts to school funding, but still lacks critical investments to improve Georgian student achievement and outcomes. Education without state budget cuts should be seen as a floor, not the ceiling on state investment.
With a record surplus in state reserves, there is a clear opportunity to take action to help the state’s most vulnerable academics. There is still a meeting on the role of the SR 650 review panel. I hope the panel will take a close look at the current needs of Georgia’s most vulnerable students and take action during the session to provide the resources that children deserve.
Stephen Owens is a senior K-12 education analyst for the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute, an Atlanta-based nonprofit that analyzes fiscal policies and proposed budgets in Georgia.