More for less?

Budget cuts a setback for Columbus area students and an obstacle to governor's ambitious education agenda

Georgia Budget & Policy InstituteApril 13, 2013 

The state budget for next year promises once again to shortchange public education at every level in West Georgia, threatening the future of the region's children and its economy.

Georgia lawmakers reduced support for the Muscogee County School District for the next school year by $23 million, bringing to more than $144 million the amount the district has lost since 2003.

Those numbers translate into painful results for Muscogee County students. The district has been forced to reduce teacher pay through furloughs, increase class sizes, and cut days from the school calendar.

With more than 66 percent of Muscogee students considered low income and one-third dropping out before graduation, the lack of resources makes a challenging situation worse.

Muscogee's predicament is typical of the rest of the state, unfortunately. Larger class sizes that make it harder to learn, a shorter school year and teacher furloughs will remain the norm for most Georgia schools unless the state reverses direction.

All this calls into question how effective the state can be in its effort to raise performance expectations of K-12 students and teachers by setting higher student achievement goals each year, implementing core learning standards at all schools and adopting a new teacher evaluation system.

Raising the bar while lowering support is the wrong combination for helping students learn more and stay on track to graduate.

With the additional $1 billion cut in 2014, policymakers have shorted K-12 education by $6.7 billion since 2003, according to the state's own funding formula, devastating schools across Georgia. This school year, more than 60 percent of districts increased the number of students per class. Two-thirds of districts cut days off the school year to make ends meet. And 75 percent of school districts reduced teacher pay through furloughs.

Schools in the university system, such as Columbus State University, also feel the pinch. The university system's statewide budget for the fiscal year that starts July 1 is almost $400 million less than in 2009. Yet 31,000 more students enrolled in state universities during that time. That's equivalent to adding another University of Georgia to our higher education system -- with less money to pay for it.

To cope with this lack of support, the university system increased tuition more than 70 percent, making it more difficult for students to afford college. That's a significant barrier to reaching the governor's goal of having 250,000 more Georgia students earn a degree or certificate by 2020.

No doubt the students at Columbus Technical College also feel the fallout from the state's refusal to adequately support its technical schools. The new budget for the Technical College System of Georgia is down about $57 million from 2009. More than 70 percent of instructors statewide now work part time, jeopardizing the colleges' accreditation. Losing this seal of approval would threaten students' job prospects.

In fact, the cuts to K-12 and higher education undermine the state's entire economic development effort. Business leaders consistently emphasize the vital importance of educated, highly trained employees. It is impossible to call Georgia "business-friendly" without such working men and women.

There is a better alternative. Comprehensive tax reform that increases revenue will improve Georgia's economic competitiveness. Reforms can be designed to cut many Georgians' taxes and still pay for investments that fuel the state's prosperity -- good schools, sound roads, healthy workers.

Georgia lawmakers have returned to their districts, where they'll hear from the people who put them in office. Let them know how much you value high-quality education for yourself, your children and your grandchildren. Remind them that slash-and-burn budgeting does not clear a path to prosperity. And tell them you expect a major course correction when they head to Atlanta for next year's General Assembly.

Alan Essig, executive director, Georgia Budget & Policy Institute, a nonprofit organization dedicated to providing sound budget and fiscal analysis at the state level; www.gbpi.org.

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