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Reforming the QBE Formula is Difficult but Necessary

When something hasn’t been done in more than three decades, people start to wonder if it might never be done again. Kirby Smart’s Georgia Bulldogs faced that sense of impossibility before they finally broke through in January for a national college football title.

Might another group of Georgians scale a similarly steep cliff before long?

Sorry, this isn’t a column about the Atlanta Falcons. Instead of NFL, I’m talking about QBE.

Quality Basic Education is the name of the formula the state uses to allocate taxpayer funds to K12 public schools. It is older than most Georgians: The median age in our state is just under 37, and QBE became law in 1985. Like Walkmans and pastel sofas, QBE is showing its age and even obsolescence.

Even in this time of inflated revenues, which pushed state funding for the current year above $30 billion, QBE determines the distribution of about one-third of those dollars. Anytime a 10-digit dollar figure is on the line, people will be hyper-vigilant about any changes.

Thus, conventional wisdom holds that only a second-term governor could withstand the political heat of reforming the formula. Yet despite their desire to revamp QBE, Sonny Perdue and Nathan Deal left office without doing so.

Now, as Gov. Brian Kemp approaches a November election that could deliver him a second term, the talk is ramping up again. Only this time, the General Assembly is sparking the conversation with a special Senate committee examining the issue.

So it’s a good time for Georgians to get up to speed on why changes are needed, and what they ought to look like.

The number of people who truly understand QBE could fit in one room, and maybe a phone booth. This is part of the problem – and not because phone booths are also obsolete. That degree of esoterica means the formula is most highly leveraged by those school districts that can employ one of those few experts. As opposed to, say, fulfilling the needs of students.

In other words, the formula already creates winners and losers among school systems. Keep that in mind as you hear people talk about possible winners and losers from reform. It may mean the rich are just getting richer – or it may mean today’s winners are simply losing an unfair advantage.

QBE allocates funding based on programs, which in practice means funding certain positions. Those positions may be necessary, but it’s a highly prescriptive outcome that leaves school systems little flexibility in how to operate. Nor do the positions funded necessarily reflect students’ needs.

Most other states have adopted a student-centered formula that dedicates funding based on student characteristics. For example, we know it takes more resources to teach a child who lives in poverty. QBE doesn’t address those needs directly, if at all.

Finally, you can expect much of the reform dialogue to focus on how much the state spends on K12 education. That’s instructive, but not for the reasons proponents think.

Public schools have never been so awash in money. They received almost $6.2 billion in federal pandemic relief but have yet to spend billions of those dollars. Between July 2020 and July 2021, school districts’ aggregate financial reserves rose from $3.8 billion to more than $5 billion. They had more money in the bank than the state government before the pandemic, and in the middle of it.

If ever there was a time to focus on outcomes rather than inputs when it comes to public education, that time is now. 

Those three themes – a level playing field for all districts, a focus on student needs, and a recognition of the money already sloshing through school system coffers – would best inform a conversation about how to reform QBE. 

We may not get another crack at this for a while, so we better do it right.