• Commentary

The Myth of Underfunding

As the 2022 legislative session nears its conclusion, an interaction that took place over two weeks ago in the Georgia Senate remains fresh in my mind. 

It occurred on Crossover Day, the last day for bills to pass at least one chamber of the legislature. This annual deadline often leads to an atypically long day compared to the rest of the 40-day session. 

During the floor debate over legislation to create Promise Scholarships for Georgia families, one senator in the well (speaking against the bill) was questioned by a fellow senator (also opposing the bill) about the status of public-school funding in Georgia.  

At issue was the state’s fulfillment of the Quality Basic Education (QBE) formula that was created in 1985 and is utilized to allocate the state’s K-12 funding, currently over $10 billion. 

These Promise Scholarships would have offered Georgia families up to $6,000 a year for any approved education expense, including tutoring, homeschooling materials, therapy for special needs students, virtual classes and, most consequential for opponents of the bill, private school tuition.

But this column is not about the benefit of Promise Scholarships, also known as Education Savings Accounts or ESAs. If you want to learn more about that, read here. Or here. Or here.

Rather, this column is about how opponents of Promise Scholarships and similar programs have long contended they are a tool to defund public school education. 

Which brings us back to the previously mentioned floor debate

“When [is] the last time Georgia fully funded QBE?” asked one senator.

“I’ll tell you, that’s a numbers game,” said the other. “And that’s a figures game. And we know that figures can lie. And liars can figure. So there’s many answers to ‘when’s the last time?’ Many answers to ‘when’s the last time Georgia fully funded QBE?’” 

Actually, there’s just one answer to the question. The last time Georgia fully funded QBE was this year. 

Not only that, but state legislators are also expected to fully fund QBE once again next year, as another senator would later point out while speaking in support of the bill. 

To be fair, the distribution for most any funding formula devised in 1985 would be problematic in 2022. And as the Foundation has also written in the past, “If the goal of QBE’s architects was to achieve minimal transparency and flexibility, then it has been a riveting success.”

But that wasn’t the premise of this interaction, which was intended to suggest the state is still operating in a manner befitting the K-12 austerity cuts that occurred in the aftermath of the Great Recession, or more recently, the precautionary budget tightening during the early months of the pandemic. 

Instead, we might easily argue that schools are doing better financially than ever before. The most recent data available show that Georgia’s 180 public school districts possessed more in cash reserves than the state government itself, a statistic the Foundation has highlighted in the past and one which came up during the floor debate. What’s more, public schools have been straining to spend the billions of dollars in emergency funding Congress sent them in multiple rounds of pandemic-related aid.

It’s true that resource allocation is finite, especially in a state with a balanced budget requirement like Georgia. However, the adage that Georgia schools are being underfunded is more fiction than fact. 

Rather, it might be worth asking how meaningful debate can even proceed on the merits and outcomes of school choice programs when the education establishment and their allies continue to perpetuate the myth that public schools are always underfunded. 

Or, by reframing the question, when will K-12 funding be enough to move forward with programs that allow greater choice for Georgia children trapped in schools that don’t meet their educational needs? 

It’s fair to debate the methodology behind Georgia’s antiquated QBE funding system for K-12 public education. It’s fair to question its efficacy and how it can be improved. In fact, it’s a question the Foundation has asked before and one we are determined to answer. 

But don’t question its current fulfillment.