By STEPHEN J. OWENS, Ph.D.
In a recent Fayette Citizen News Analysis, Fayette Citizens for Children Chairman Neil Sullivan took me to task for supposed crimes of neglect and omission in an op-ed I authored for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution on the need for equitable education funding.
It’s important to revisit his claims so that we can resolve to spend the new year avoiding geographical squabbles and join to demand that the state provides every school system the resources they need so that all children succeed, regardless of where they live.
The crux of Mr. Sullivan’s argument was on my (correct) assertion that Clayton County receives fewer state and local dollars per student than their neighbors in Fayette. He noted (also correctly) that Clayton received significant federal funding — doubling per student in fact from 2020 to 2021.
Now, here’s where we might ask: what happened over this time that would account for such a huge influx of federal dollars? In response to the Covid-19 pandemic the federal government passed three bills allocating $5.9 billion to mitigate harm in K-12 public schools.
Clayton County received millions more in pandemic aid because the funds were distributed by how many students each district had living in poverty at the time. Unlike CARES/ARP funds, state and local tax collection can be used for recurring costs.
Any accountant will tell you not to budget on your bonus and that’s what these federal dollars were, a one-time bonus meant to address an extraordinary crisis. While these dollars are being used, it’s wise to omit them from system comparisons.
From there Mr. Sullivan decried the fact that Clayton citizens (via property taxes) only pay for 31 percent of the school budget while, “slightly more than half of Fayette’s funding comes from the county’s citizens, with a millage rate near the maximum allowed.”
This is an interesting comparison considering Clayton County residents, as of the most recent data, pay a higher rate than Fayette. The maximum amount, as a matter of fact. The reason Clayton’s 20 mills pay such a small slice of the school’s budgets is due to the simple fact that Clayton property, per student enrolled, is much less valuable than in Fayette. I for one would rather a child’s education not be diminished for the crime of being born in a less expensive house.
Now let me state a fact that is less uncomfortable: Fayette County has excellent public schools. I’m a graduate myself (Sandy Creek class of 2002), and I learned there not only how to do calculus and stoichiometry but also to respect my neighbors.
Instead of ginning up unflattering comparisons, every Georgia community should turn our attention to the state. Lawmakers continue to underfund critical grants like pupil transportation (state funding has been stagnant since 2000 while costs to districts increase annually) and ignore the needs of students (Georgia remains one of only six states that does not provide specific funding to educate kids in poverty), hurting every single school in our state.
Let’s put down arms and jointly fight for changes like these so that all Georgians can enjoy an excellent public education.
[Dr. Stephen J. Owens is the Education Director for the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute, a nonpartisan, nonprofit research and advocacy organization. He earned a Ph.D. in education policy from the University of Georgia, focusing on state education finance. He analyzes the state budget to advocate for full and fair funding so that all Georgians have access to high quality public education.]