By Benjamin Scafidi and Heidi Holmes Erickson
To meet the constitutional requirement that Georgia’s budget is balanced each year, state government must now cut 14% of expenditures as a result of revenue shortfalls from the COVID-19 economic crisis. A simple change in state law will save taxpayers over $80 million. This change will also ensure that resources are better focused on students in need.
Georgia’s Early Intervention Program (EIP) provides extra state funding for remedial services for K-5 students who perform behind grade level according to specific state guidelines. Local public school systems receive additional state funds of $1,000-$2,000 for each student classified as eligible for the EIP. The state provides the additional funding; local systems determine which students are eligible and how those funds are spent. The state provides guidelines for EIP classification and services, but locals are not bound by them.
Local systems have not always enjoyed this discretion. Until 2009, all public schools were required to follow state guidelines when classifying students as eligible for the EIP and were required to spend state EIP funding on additional educational services for EIP students. Over the past 12 years, local systems became “charter systems” or received “strategic waivers,” which provided additional flexibility over spending state funds; they no longer had to dedicate the EIP money to EIP services.
These changes in law had the unintended consequence of creating an incentive for local districts to classify more students as needing EIP services and receive an extra $1,000-$2,000 per student, with no requirement to spend these extra funds on EIP students.
Back in February, WSB-TV investigative reporter Richard Belcher broke the story. Between 2009 and 2020 – once local schools received discretion over the EIP – the number of students classified as EIP increased 107%, from about 57,000 students to over 118,000.
If the number of students requiring EIP services increased that dramatically over time, measures of student achievement and disadvantage would be expected to follow a similar pattern. That does not appear to be the case. During that time there has been no increase in the percentage of Georgia students who perform below basic on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) fourth grade reading exam and only a 1 percentage point increase in the number who perform below basic on the NAEP fourth grade math exam.
Additionally, the child poverty rate in Georgia has decreased by 1.7 percentage points over the same time period. Given these trends, a 107% increase in students requiring EIP services over an 11-year period seems improbably large.
Changes in Georgia K-5 Students Classified as Needing Early Intervention Program Remedial Services, 4th Grade Student Achievement and Child Poverty Rates, 2009 to 2018/20
Had classification of students needing EIP services remained unchanged between 2009 and 2020, state taxpayers would have saved over $80 million in 2020. Restoring the pre-2009 policy would require a simple law change: Dedicate EIP funds to EIP services and require all local systems to follow state guidelines when classifying students as EIP.
The increases in classification rates for EIP vary dramatically across the state. For example, over the past decade in Gwinnett County, K-5 students classified as EIP increased from 4.4% to 6.4%. In DeKalb, however, it grew from 5.3% to 33.1%.As the coronavirus-related economic crisis abates, state officials should examine the impact of the EIP program on student learning, as statewide student achievement does not appear to have increased as spending on EIP exploded. Amid this economic crisis, a simple legal change will require that EIP dollars are actually spent on EIP students truly behind their grade level. And that commonsense mandate will save about $80 million when the state budget faces a swift and significant reduction.
This commentary was written for the Georgia Public Policy Foundation by Benjamin Scafidi, the director of the Education Economics Center at Kennesaw State University and a Senior Fellow with the Foundation and Heidi Holmes Erickson, a Senior Fellow with the Education Economics Center.
The Georgia Public Policy Foundation is a trusted, independent resource for voters and elected officials. Established in 1991, the Foundation provides actionable solutions to real-life problems by bringing people together. Nothing written here is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Foundation or as an attempt to aid or hinder the passage of any bill before the U.S. Congress or the Georgia Legislature.