ATLANTA — Gov. Nathan Deal pledged an exhaustive review of the state's system for funding schools this week, 13 days before voters go to the polls.
Deal has hinted at a review of the school funding formula since May, but began doling out details at campaign appearances during the last few weeks as Democrat Jason Carter made attacks over education spending a focus of his campaign. This week, he told The Associated Press that he wants feedback from educators and administrators to develop a system putting money where schools determine it is most effective.
"I don't go into it with the idea we're going to save money; I go into it with the idea we're going to spend money more appropriately," Deal said in an interview this week.
He plans a similar approach used to alter criminal justice in Georgia, including the creation of a commission to focus on the issue and laws passed during three legislative sessions.
But the history of making changes to the Quality Basic Education formula — QBE for short — isn't encouraging. Two major efforts under previous governors created more sticker shock than action, and some educators worry that the governor's push to "update" the formula means the state will set a number with less consideration of the cost to educate children with wildly different backgrounds and skill sets.
"My thought is, what has happened in the past is a pretty good indicator of what's going to happen in the future," said John Zauner, executive director of the Georgia School Superintendents Association.
Georgia likely wouldn't be the only state to overhaul its method for funding schools if Deal is re-elected on Nov. 4 and follows through. Mike Griffith, school finance consultant for the Education Commission of the States, said many are picking up conversations about school funding that became illogical as the recession squeezed budgets everywhere.
"If you change the formula without resources, you're creating winners and losers by taking the same amount and redistributing it out," he said.
Georgia's dense formula recommends how much the state should spend on education based on the number of students enrolled, staff salaries and other expenses and tries to balance for factors like special education programs and local property wealth.
Deal argues that the state has never fully funded the formula's recommendations and said he also wants to consider the best methods for various students. He said spending on reading mentors rather than holding struggling students back is an example.
"It would be remiss if we simply thought we could achieve educational advancement simply by reworking the formula," he said. "We have to talk about quality methods of delivery."
Herb Garrett, the former director of the superintendents' association, said the worst-case scenario is the state abandoning any effort to figure out how much a solid education costs, particularly to train and keep good teachers.
"Education is a personnel-heavy business," he said. "If you add personnel, you add cost. That's always what surprises everybody when you take a serious look."
Carter's campaign on Wednesday dismissed Deal's approach as damage control in a tight race. The state senator from Atlanta has hammered Deal on education from the start, arguing the governor further weakened the formula by cutting education spending during his first three years in office. The latest state budget added about $300 million in new funding back to schools but was still short of recommendations.
Carter called proper school funding "the holy grail" at the September educators' forum.
"Right now we don't fund it, and it almost doesn't matter what the funding formula is if you continue the governor's plan to underfund it," he said.