CUMBERLAND — As school choice proponent Betsy DeVos awaits her confirmation as the next education secretary, the argument for school choice is heating up at the local level.
Thursday morning at a breakfast meeting, a research fellow from the Cumberland-based nonprofit research group Georgia Public Policy Foundation said Georgia’s school choice programs and charter schools are missing out on state funding due to the way the state education department reports its spending.
School choice encompasses various programming such as vouchers funded by public education dollars to fund students’ tuition for private and charter schools in addition to public school magnet and charter programs.
The state education department spent $15.7 billion during fiscal 2016 while the Governor’s Office of Student Achievement reported Georgia public schools spending $19.2 million — a $3.5 billion difference — according to Kennesaw State University economics professor Ben Scafidi.
At the student level, Scafidi said the state education department spent $9,020 on each student during fiscal 2016 while Gov. Nathan Deal’s office said it spent $11,031 per student.
State Sen. Lindsey Tippins, R-west Cobb, said the higher total from Deal’s office includes federal funding while the state education department sum only includes local and state funds.
“I think they’re looking at two different sets of data,” said Tippins, who chairs the Senate Education Committee. “I don’t think either party is trying to deceive anybody.”
Another difference in the numbers stem from the state education department not including capital expenditures and debt service payments in its reported spending, said department spokesperson Matt Cardoza.
The state education department only reports funds that are directly related to classroom instruction, he said.
Cardoza said those items are not included in the reported amounts in order for the state education department to report a consistent number to federal agencies, such as the Census.
“They specifically instruct us and all states to adjust expenditures for just this reason,” Cardoza said.
Scafidi said he does not blame the current state education leadership, saying such inconsistent reporting has occurred for more than 20 years.
“It’s not their fault,” he said. “I just ask them to fix in the interest in transparency.”
LOCAL, TEACHER IMPACT
Cobb school board Chairman David Chastain, who attended the meeting, said Deal’s office and the state education department need to agree on how much money they report spending on Georgia public school students as it could affect local school districts’ funding.
The state funding formula uses the state education department’s numbers to calculate how much funding each school district receives.
Cobb school board member Randy Scamihorn, who also attended the breakfast event, said he is concerned about how the alleged underreporting affects teachers and how state policy makers determine how much funding school districts receive.
“We need to find out a way to route that money to teacher salaries,” he said.
Scafidi, a father of four Cobb students, claimed the different reported numbers have hurt public school teachers.
Between 1988 and 2014, public schools funding increased by 56 percent, he said, and a majority of that money paid for more staff positions — not teacher salaries.
“That’s where (teacher) pay raises went,” Scafidi said.
Non-teacher positions include paraprofessionals and parent liaisons.
If school districts would have increased the number of non-teacher staff members at the same rate of increased student enrollment, which would have resulted in far fewer hires, he said Georgia public schools could have saved $1.1 billion in annual recurring savings.
Scafidi is urging the state education department to not only report its total spending but for the state to also expand its school choice programming.
An argument against school choice is that it takes money away from public schools, but Scafidi said up to two-thirds of the $11,000 — about $7,300 — the governor’s office says is spent on each Georgia student could fund school choice efforts without harming public schools’ finances.
“They don’t want to lose a dollar of their customer’s money,” he said.
Lots of misunderstanding on funding of public schools
In the article, “State education department reporting called into question” (MDJ, 1/27/2017), The Marietta Daily Journal did an excellent job reporting on my study for the Georgia Public Policy Foundation, “Balancing the Books in Education.” The study shows the Georgia Department of Education underreports total public school spending by about $3.5 billion per year. Please allow me to address some reactions to my study that were reported in the article.
First, there is no federal mandate that the Georgia Department of Education “cherrypick” the spending data it shares. No federal law requires it to portray the incomplete amount, $15.665 billion, as the total amount of spending by our public schools when the amount of spending the department reports to other government agencies is, in fact, more than $19 billion per year.
The department should immediately begin reporting accurate data on its website about total spending on Georgia public schools. As my research found, the tremendous increases in public school spending over several decades have not seemed to make their way into teachers’ paychecks. Reporting accurate information about public school spending and the uses of those funds on the department’s website in easy-to-understand formats would improve decision-making regarding education expenditures.
Further, this underreporting of spending by the Georgia Department of Education means Georgians are typically misled about the true cost of our public education system.
Apparently, among the misled are Cobb County’s own Sen. Lindsey Tippins, longtime chair of our State Senate’s Education Committee, who (according to the article) believes “the higher total from (Governor) Deal’s office includes federal funding while the state education department sum only includes local and state funds.”
In fact, federal funds are explicitly included in the Georgia Department of Education’s “Revenue Report” on its website at app3.doe.k12.ga.us/ows-bin/owa/fin_pack_revenue.entry_form.
Senator Tippins, policymakers and Georgia’s parents and taxpayers deserve access to accurate, complete and clear information about the total amount spent in Georgia’s public schools.
Professor of Economics
Kennesaw State University
Senior fellow with the Georgia Public Policy Foundation