ATLANTA — Democrat Jason Carter's call for a separate state education budget and his promise that it will increase funding for schools is the hallmark of his campaign for Georgia governor against incumbent Republican Nathan Deal.
"If folks have to stand up and say 'Are we properly funding education every single year?' I believe you will see a very different discussion and an increase in the funding," Carter told reporters after a Georgia PTA candidate forum this month.
Education finance and state budget experts aren't so certain. No other state is using the exact model Carter has proposed, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. But Alabama, Michigan and Utah split education funding from other expenses, and the three states are nowhere near the top in national education rankings.
Carter argues that moving away from Georgia's all-encompassing budget process would eliminate political cover on cuts to education spending for lawmakers and force a discussion on how much it costs to provide a quality education.
"It is a complete shell game right now," Carter told educators at an October forum hosted by one of the state's largest teacher groups. "Folks hide behind the budgeting process to say they're doing all that they can."
The three states with separate education budgets also have designated sources of funding — individual and corporate income tax and other taxes in Alabama, for example. Carter doesn't plan to divert any state income directly to education. He said the change only requires a vote on education funding on its own merits before lawmakers can move to any discussion of other state spending.
Voters tend to support promises to take politics out of education, said Mike Griffith, school finance consultant for the Education Commission of the States. But actually taking politics out of budgeting is very unlikely, he said.
"Budgeting is politics," he said. "That's what the budgeting process is, negotiating these things out."
Michigan used to require budget votes on K-12, higher education and community colleges. Cutting the number of budget votes to two continued to isolate lawmakers from some political pressure but they still approved cuts to K-12 funding as state revenue was squeezed, said Bob Schneider, director of state affairs at the Citizens Research Council of Michigan.
"My gut instinct is a separate budget might make it easier to add a little bit to the school budget, but in the long run, you still only have so much revenue to carve up," he said.
To make his proposal happen, Carter would have to defeat Deal in the Nov. 4 election and then convince lawmakers and voters to amend the state's Constitution — requiring a two-thirds vote from a Republican Legislature. Carter has told education groups he also would focus on teacher training and retention in addition to the budget change.
The sitting governor blasted Carter at the October educators' forum for promising more money without saying where it will come from and for not offering his own budget amendments during past legislative sessions. Carter has said the state can collect more than $2 billion in unpaid taxes and cut waste to increase spending on education.
"I think that's one of the very specific things that people need answers to," Deal said. "Our budgeting process is not perfect by any means, but it is one where people have the right to participate."