How Should the Gold Dome Spend Your Money?

What to do with your money is the topic this week at the Gold Dome. There is even more reason than usual to pay attention.

State officials expect to have $27.2 billion for the next budget. That’s about $935 million more than they forecast for the current budget, which in turn is about $400 million more than they originally thought they’d have. Not too shabby, coming off a recession.

Naturally, how to spend the increase is at the heart of budget hearings that begin Tuesday. And just as naturally, education officials have an idea: Give it to them.

This, as it happens, is their answer pretty much every year, in all circumstances. If enrollment declines, as it did this year, they want more money.

If enrollment increases, they want more money.

To resort to virtual instruction during the pandemic, they want more money.

And to reopen the schools, well, they want more money for that, too.

Astute readers have noticed a theme. There is never a problem for which education officials won’t propose more money as the answer.

This time, they point to budget cuts as the source of their ills. And it’s true, the state did reduce its funding of public schools by more than $900 million.

It’s also true that was not the only change in schools’ funding over the past year.

There was the CARES Act, which provided $411 million to Georgia’s public schools – not quite half the state shortfall.

There was the December stimulus bill, which is funneling another $1.7 billion into them – not quite double  the state shortfall.

In fact, take the state’s funding for districts and add those two bills, the former in the 2020 budget and the latter in the 2021 budget, and here’s what you get. (This does not include local money, or routine federal funding.)

In the 2019 budget, before the pandemic began and when education was considered fully funded, Georgia’s public schools got more than $9.6 billion from the state.

In 2020, they got about $10.6 billion from the state and the CARES Act.

In 2021, they stand to get almost $11.6 billion from the state and the December stimulus bill.

In 2022, on present course, their take would dip back down to $9.8 billion. But that’s not including the plan President-elect Joe Biden unveiled this past week. Going by past allocations of the federal bills, our public schools would be looking at a minimum of $3 billion more, and possibly $4 billion.

And because enrollment was down in the autumn, the per-pupil figures represent about a 10% increase year over year, every year, from 2019 to 2022.

But don’t expect any education official, anywhere, to acknowledge any of this.

If you are wondering what we might get in return for all this money, keep guessing.

Thousands of Georgia children still don’t know when they will return to classrooms. The frustration of poor virtual learning led many families to leave their public school, which explains the enrollment decline. But worst of all, anecdotal evidence about truancy suggests not only that the official enrollment numbers may be overstated – reporting requirements were relaxed due to the pandemic – but that an untold number of children may be wholly unaccounted for.

In the meantime, another main policy objective this year for education officials is less accountability.

I’ll wait a moment to let the contradiction fully sink in …

Oh, they dress up their proposals for reducing accountability in the guise of responding to the current circumstances. But in reality, that is an excuse for getting rid of tests and metrics they despised before most of us knew what a coronavirus was. The circumstances actually demand more information, not less, about student performance and how it reflects the hodgepodge of instructional approaches varying not just from district to district, or school to school, but often classroom to classroom.

If there was ever a time for lawmakers to respond by giving families more options that actually fit their needs, this is it.

Kyle Wingfield is president and CEO of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation:

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