Commentary: End the Education Numbers game: Let Funding Follow Students

By Kelly McCutchen

“All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others,” George Orwell wrote in his classic work, “Animal Farm.” That was fiction. But it’s a reality in public education: All public schools are equal, but some public schools are more equal than others.

Georgia’s charter schools are public schools that are exempt from some rules and regulations. In exchange for that flexibility they are held accountable for student achievement goals. As public schools, charter schools must accept all students. Yet today in Georgia, students who move from a traditional public school to a state-chartered public school located in the same school system lose as much as two-thirds of their public funding. The state has a constitutional obligation to rectify this inequity.

Consider this: Charter schools more than reflect the state’s diversity. Racial minorities make up 61 percent of charter school students, compared with 53 percent statewide, and 56 percent of charter school students are from low-income families, versus 50 percent statewide. Overcoming these (and the funding) hurdles, charter schools demonstrate academic success. They perform at the same or higher level on the state CRCT tests and have higher pass rates in every content area of the Georgia High School Graduation Test than traditional schools. A successful charter school is a successful public school.

Far too many parents lack the option of sending their child to a charter school because their local school board resists the concept. Poorly designed charter schools clearly should be turned down, but the current trend is troubling. Twenty-six of the 28 charter petitions submitted last year were denied by local school boards.

The good news is that Georgia law allows an appeal to the State Board of Education if a charter is denied at the local level. The bad news is that such “state-chartered special schools” receive only state and federal funding. The average total per-student funding last year in Georgia was $8,729. The average state and federal funding per student is $4,230, but can be as little as $3,200. Unlike traditional schools, this amount must cover both operating and capital costs. Not surprisingly, just five state-chartered schools exist among Georgia’s 71.

Legislation proposed to make such state-chartered schools “whole,” would provide that the state match the (absent) local funds then retain an equivalent amount from the local school district’s state funding. In this way, the full allotment of funding would follow the child.

There is a precedent for this approach in current law. To support the policy goal of limiting the inequity in education funding due to property tax wealth differences at the local level, the state retains a portion of the state funds earned by each local school system. This “local fair share” is determined by multiplying the local net property tax digest by 5 mills. That amounted to more than $1.4 billion last year.

Local school boards argue that this challenges the time-honored tradition of local control. But isn’t it logical to argue that local control is enhanced when parents are given choices? As Rep. Alisha Thomas Morgan (D-Austell) declared in floor debate on the legislation (HB 881), “What better local control is there than parents? You can’t get more local than that.”

Governance in this model is also more “local” and accountability is firmly established. The schools are run by local governing boards comprising parents, teachers and local business leaders. Parents can leave the school at any time and the state can shut the school down if the school fails to meet its academic goals. That’s triple accountability – to parents, a decentralized local board and the state.

Many local school boards, like Gainesville City Schools, are forward-thinking enough to create choices for their parents on their own, and Georgia’s new charter systems law streamlines this process. Some school systems are receptive to the unique offerings and innovation provided by charter schools, but children in more than 80 percent of Georgia’s school systems have no access to a charter school.

State chartered schools are not the only answer, but they can provide a critical safety valve if equitably funded. Parents should not be punished for seeking the best educational opportunities for their children, particularly within the public school framework. Too much is at stake to play local political power games with the future of young Georgians. Georgia must enable true public school choice for every child, regardless of wealth or geography, by supporting the principle that the money should follow the child.

Kelly McCutchen is executive vice president of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation, an independent think tank that proposes practical, market-oriented approaches to public policy to improve the lives of Georgians. Nothing written here is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation or as an attempt to aid or hinder the passage of any bill before the U.S. Congress or the Georgia Legislature.

© Georgia Public Policy Foundation (February 8, 2008). Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided the author and his affiliations are cited.