Gov. Nathan Deal has asked the Georgia General Assembly to look at replacing the QBE funding formula for public schools that has been in place for 30 years. This abstract-sounding decision could determine how much freedom superintendents and principals have in deciding how many teachers to hire.
It is a somewhat separate issue from how much money the state distributes through either the current formula or the new one. That question will figure in whether the Bulloch County Board of Education raises local property taxes.
Since the Quality Basic Education program was enacted by the Legislature in 1985, officials have come to use “QBE” as shorthand for state money provided to local school systems. But the Education Reform Commission that Deal established last year recommended a new approach, called student-based budgeting, or SBB.
“I believe that the proposed new funding formula is a vast improvement over QBE. …,” Dr. Charles Knapp, who chaired the Reform Commission, said Jan. 8 at a Georgia Partnership for Excellence in Education conference in Atlanta. “QBE is very complicated. It’s pretty rigid.”
To decide how the money for paying teachers and for other purposes is distributed among schools and school systems, QBE uses a formula with 18 student categories by grade level and academic program.
The proposed student-based budgeting formula would use the money provided to middle schools for each regular student in the sixth through eighth grades as a standard unit.
Weights in the formula would direct a little extra funding per student to the fourth and fifth grades, still more to high schools, and the most to kindergarten through third grade. Other weights would provide schools marginally more money for educating each economically disadvantaged student, students for whom English is a second language, gifted students, and for career and technical education programs.
Special education would receive the most funding per child, increasing with the severity of students’ needs. On special education funding in particular, Knapp said, the proposed new system would be simpler than QBE.
Overall, the formula is still “extremely complicated. But I think basically what we’ve got is a more flexible system that can react to changes in Georgia,” he said.
Also speaking at the Georgia Partnership’s annual symposium on education issues for journalists, State School Superintendent Richard Woods identified the funding formula “first and foremost” among the issues he would be watching during the election-shortened legislative session that began Monday.
‘If it’s fully funded’
But when asked if he agreed that the student-based formula would be a vast improvement, Woods said, “If it’s fully funded.” He called attention to the fact that the money supplied to schools relies on annual appropriations by the Legislature and governor, subject to a balanced budget requirement.
“You know, we don’t have a printing press at the DOE,” Woods said.
A Republican like Deal and most of Georgia’s elected officials, Woods was elected in 2014 to head the state Department of Education. Noting that Deal has increased education funding the past few years as revenues have recovered, Woods said he hopes this continues “across-the-board,” with more also going to other agencies in need of resources.
Dr. Susan Andrews, special projects director in the Governor’s Office of Planning and Budget, said the funding formula will be “a huge issue.” She worked with the Education Reform Commission in preparing its report.
A former school superintendent in two different counties, Andrews said she often wished she could develop a “budget based on the characteristics and needs of my students rather than all of the requirements that I had to meet to get QBE funding.”
“It’s about flexibility, it’s about transparency, it’s about local control,” she said.
But Rep. Stacey Abrams, as minority leader the top Democrat in the Georgia House of Representatives, said the formula won’t cure the problem of underfunding. School districts have long complained that the state never put as much money into the QBE program as originally intended. The most recent reductions were “austerity cuts” after the 2008 recession.
The more than $1 billion Deal added the past two years did not fully restore per-student funding to pre-recession levels.
“Even though there’s an additional pot of money that’s being added, under the funding formula we’re still not where we should be,” Abrams said. “There’s about a quarter of a billion dollars that’s still missing.”
Funding cuts, she said, have created problems for student achievement and school capacity.
“While a new formula may make sense, how do you accommodate and how do you account for the challenges that were created by the underfunding?” Abrams asked.
Bulloch County Schools Superintendent Charles Wilson, interviewed Tuesday, said he sees potential advantages in student-based budgeting.
“From what I have seen, the formula they’re using does make sense,” Wilson said. “It’s simpler. It considers different factors such as socioeconomic issues.”
But he said he didn’t feel qualified to compare the two formulas point-by-point.
The Bulloch County Schools are one of many Georgia school systems that have sought waivers from some QBE rules and other regulations under “flexibility options” provided under a 2008 state law. An existing waiver allows the schools to assign more students to each teacher. Now that Bulloch County is applying to become a Strategic Waivers School System, further exemptions could allow the schools to do things such as using funding awarded for an additional a teacher to hire more paraprofessionals, or employing an engineer without a teaching certificate to teach math.
If the state moves to adopt the new funding formula, it probably won’t eliminate the Bulloch County Schools’ need to pursue waivers, Wilson said. But a simpler formula could make it easier for local officials to understand how the funds are being supplied as they use the waivers to adjust the funding to local priorities, he said.
For example, the Bulloch County Board of Education last year adopted “local values” of funding more counselors and special-subjects teachers than the state provides.
This fiscal year, state QBE funding to the Bulloch County Schools amounts to roughly $45 million, or more than 58 percent of the local school system’s $77 million budgeted revenue. Meanwhile, budgeted spending totals $83 million, after the Board of Education in 2015 funded those local values, plus raises for school employees and a local replacement for funds still missing from QBE austerity cuts, all without raising property taxes.
Instead, the school system is reducing a previously accumulated $19 million reserve. But Wilson warned last year that reserve spending cannot last many years without a local tax increase or more state funding.
Asked whether simply getting more money from the state would be more important than a new formula, Wilson said both are important.
“Any additional funding is appreciated and can be used to help forward our mission,” he said. “How we use it and how we are allowed to use it in relation to what we want to accomplish is just as important.”
Not just yet
After Deal’s State of the State speech Wednesday, school systems appear likely to receive more funding, but less likely to see a new formula adopted before 2017. He mentioned an additional $416 million in kindergarten through 12th-grade funding for fiscal year 2017, which begins July 1.
But on the Reform Commission’s recommendations, Deal asked only that the Legislature conduct “a full review” this year. This means that other recommendations, such as a teacher merit pay provision, are also unlikely to be enacted, or at least wouldn’t be funded yet.
“My budget next year will include funding to implement my recommendations and those of the Education Reform Commission,” Deal said. “This will provide ample time to vet the full report.”
Al Hackle may be reached at (912) 489-9458.