Georgia Budget Again Prioritizes Education

This week’s Courier Herald column:

Last week, members of the legislature’s appropriations committees held budget hearings with those that head state agencies, going over requests for new money and justifications for existing expenses. It’s the annual signal that the pageantry portion of opening a session of the General Assembly has ended and the hard work has begun.  The budget is constitutionally the only item that must be completed every year.

Georgia’s economy remains strong, and revenues flowing to state coffers continue to grow.  As has been custom for the past several years, the bulk of revenue growth above the increased cost of existing programs has been earmarked for education.

Governor Kemp has requested a “sizeable down payment” on his campaign pledge of a $5,000 across the board pay raise for Georgia’s teachers.  His budget includes $3,000 per teacher this year.  State employees would also receive a 2% pay raise under his proposal.

Additional money for education is proposed for school safety.  $69 Million, which breaks down to $30,000 for every school, is earmarked for local school boards to determine one-time expenses to improve the security of each school campus.

The mental health of students is also addressed. $8.4 Million is requested from the Governor for additional mental health counselors to engage struggling students as well as mitigate aggressive behavior.

Under this budget plan, Georgia’s Quality Basic Education formula would be fully funded and Georgia’s teachers would get a substantial pay raise.  Additional money will be added to Georgia’s antiquated Teacher’s Retirement System by virtue of the increased teacher pay scale, as the money needed to pay out retirement benefits is based on teacher earnings.

This generates a few points that need to be underscored on where Georgia is with respect to education funding today and going forward. 

With QBE funded and teachers’ pay being ramped up, the stale talking point that Georgia underfunds education should be dead.  It won’t be however, as those that have used this talking point never quantify how much money education “needs”.  The answer, no matter how much is spent, is always quite simply “more”.

While investment in education is increasing, accountability standards are being relaxed or eliminated.  Georgia has ramped up teacher pay before, to the point of paying the most in the southeast and the highest in the nation when adjusted for cost of living.  Georgia only moved out of the education basement after rigorous performance standards were implemented.  We now run the risk of paying more but expecting less.

The pay raise for teachers is said to keep teachers from leaving the profession early.  The benefits of increased money into the system falls disproportionately to those on the other end of the career timeline when the expense to the retirement system is factored in.  Legislators need to review the retirement system that benefits only those educators that remain in the profession for ten years before completing the entire pay raise request.  A system that is more equitable for early career teachers may also be more cost-effective for taxpayers.

Most importantly, an education plan that is focused on dollars is too often focused on adults and their careers (and their votes) rather than students and their needs.  With a new Governor, Lieutenant Governor, and both House and Senate Education Chairmen, it will be interesting to see if these policies translate into new opportunities for students and their families.

Georgia for more than a decade has recognized in word and practice that one size does not fit all with education opportunities.  Georgia’s education bureaucracy is fully funded.  Teacher pay is increasing.  As such, the first criticism to expanding school choice has been fully mitigated.

Yes, the dollars spent on education matter.  What matters more, however, is that each individual student is given their best opportunity to succeed, rather than to assimilate into a system they are assigned because of the house their parents can afford.


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