• Commentary

What It Will Take to Finally Get K-12 Finance Reform in Georgia

Georgia’s 37-year-old funding formula, the Quality Basic Education (QBE) program, is back under the microscope of the state’s top lawmakers. The Senate Study Committee to Review Education Funding Mechanisms was established by a Senate resolution during the 2022 legislative session to “review and evaluate the efficacy and sufficiency of these and other funding mechanisms in meeting the needs of Georgia’s schools and students.” The committee is in the early stages of gathering public input and is looking at all aspects of Georgia’s education funding system, including components outside of the QBE. 

This certainly isn’t the first time that reforming Georgia’s K-12 finance system has been a priority for state leaders. Laudably, former governors Nathan Deal and Sonny Perdue also formed study committees and pushed for overhauls of the QBE—only to be defeated by the thorny politics of school finance reform. If efforts to update Georgia’s severely outdated school finance system are to succeed this time around, Georgia policymakers should consider following the example of other states that have achieved substantial K-12 funding reforms by building broad coalitions and not getting bogged down by years of analysis. 

The QBE controls about 95 percent of the state’s K-12 budget and has shortcomings that are well understood at this point. The formula is highly prescriptive in how it allocates dollars, splitting its instructional funding streams into 18 separate segments based on rigid staffing ratios for different programs and a statewide salary schedule. It even includes assumptions around equipment and textbook costs. Outside of core instruction, the QBE also has overly-specific allocations for items like administrative staff and additional instructional days. 

Problematically, the state funding system also has built-in inequities that allocate additional funds to districts with more experienced staff and that allow wealthy districts to outspend their neighbors by raising funds from additional local taxes without voter approval. 

Fundamentally, the problem with Georgia’s QBE is that it’s a spending plan rather than a funding plan. The system gives little trust to local leaders—those closest to the children—to tailor resource decisions for their students’ unique needs. 

If Georgia legislators want a K-12 finance reform strategy to stick this time around, they need to focus on setting a clear vision, establishing a transparent public engagement process, and following an efficient timeline. As an example, consider Tennessee, which recently achieved comprehensive school finance reform in the 2022 legislative session. 

In October of 2021 and months before the 2022 legislative session, Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee launched a 90-day public comment period to explore creating a new K-12 funding formula to replace the state’s complex and input-driven Basic Education Program. Public hearings were conducted by 18 different subcommittees over that period, each focusing on different areas in Tennessee’s education system including rural districts, urban districts, students with disabilities, and school system personnel. From the start, the governor and state education commissioner were steering the subcommittees toward a simple, flexible, student-centered formula. 

In one of the first funding review subcommittee meetings, Tennessee Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn made a keen observation: “States who have gotten something passed that is productive, (and) actually closer to the idea of what they wanted to accomplish have taken 2-6 months… The longer you draw out a process, the more people get stuck in their ways and are not as flexible. People are not willing to compromise on topics. And we’ve seen states who just kick the can down the road, year after year after year.”

By late February of 2022, the Tennessee Governor unveiled a student-centered funding proposal called the Tennessee Investment in Student Achievement (TISA) Act. The bill was amended and approved by seven committees, passed by the state legislative chambers, and signed into law. TISA was a big improvement from the former system and it included the adoption of a more transparent formula with  a stable dollar amount attached to each student and accompanying weights for students with additional needs. The administration’s highly organized and timely process—supplemented by years of previous study committees and an additional $1 billion investment in K-12 education over the two years—are what ushered TISA across the finish line. 

To be sure, TISA wasn’t a perfect piece of legislation and the Peach State has its own unique school funding issues to contend with. However, Georgia’s current $5 billion budget surplus indicates that more money is likely coming for K-12 education. State policymakers should get the most bang for their buck by using the new funds to modernize school funding to better serve kids and improve taxpayer accountability with how education funds are used. 

Christian Barnard is a senior policy analyst at Reason Foundation.