Don’t blame the messenger: School funding is far from fair



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.]


  1. Dr. Owen’s, I have to wonder how students residing in many of the surrounding counties would fare at Starr’s Mill High School. I don’t think the issue is equity in school funding or resources. Parental expectations and involvement are simply much greater in Fayette County. These critical and undeniable factors serve to motivate our children; hold administrators and teachers accountable; and make our schools excellent. These are some of the reasons why teachers want to teach in Fayette County. Not money. I also wonder how you define and measure “success.” Your idea of success may be different from mine. The fact is that school funding is not holding students back. Let’s be honest. Home environment, not property value, is the disadvantage. No amount of educational resources will fix the problem. Higher taxes or redistribution of tax dollars for education is not the solution. With all due respect, analyzing the state budget to advocate for full and fair funding seems like a futile exercise.

    • Mom….shhhh…..pointing out the obvious will never get you anywhere! The problem with education policymakers (as I see it) is that they rarely have hands-on experience teaching. Sometimes they may have put in a year, or two, with Teach for America, but that’s not enough time to really see the patterns. And they do exist! Everybody that has taught for a significant amount of time (10+ years) knows that if the parents do not value an education then the student will not value an education. Even in Fayette County (shocking, but true). Money can’t fix that. I appreciated the policymakers, I know they are looking at the big picture and trying to find solutions to the existing problems and trying to guess what problems might occur and deal with them now. Theory is great, but reality does its own thing. That’s what 28 years of teaching taught me. And you are correct about “home environment,” but policymakers can’t fix that and neither can teachers.

  2. A few other things that strike about this discussion:

    The statistics can be misleading, especially if you don’t know the whole story (not picking sides here, but just as a hypothetical, one could point to a large increase in state funding to make one’s case, but without pointing out that this increase was offset by reductions from another source, or the reverse). This seems a bit complicated to debate in writing.

    I’d suggest that “any accountant will tell you” that only considering state & county funding while ignoring federal funding doesn’t seem reasonable.

    And “any accountant will tell you” that just because one line item (transportation) has been stagnant that doesn’t necessarily mean anything.

    And “any accountant will tell you” that nowhere does this letter make the case that schools in this state are underfunded. As noted elsewhere, at $13k per student per year I’d wager our schools are getting a lot more money than most citizens would have guessed.

  3. Dr Owens – I am skeptical about attempts to influence opinion that lead with “it’s not fair”.

    If the state fully-funded student transportation and added funding for children in poverty, would you be satisfied? How much would your solution add to our taxes?

    And why do you only compare the tax revenue side? What about an analysis of expenses, as any household or business would do? How many administrators have been added over the years? What discretionary programs add little value that can be reallocated?

    We need our public officials (starting at the federal level) to reduce and / or focus spending first when faced with a shortfall. No one should ask for more from taxpayers until they have taken these actions.

    • Hi Bill:

      You are spot on. I started going to the expense side in my response but then realized I just don’t know enough about their schools to say. I do think I see opportunity, but I have been doing the Fayette schools since 2008 so I understand the finer details.

      But I do not think school funding should be a bonfire of money or to “fix poverty”. Dr. Owens actually wandered into why I have focused on all of this. It isn’t a Clayton v Fayette thing, but rather concern if the legislature gives more to systems due to “poverty” They would need to add to education funding and not just give Clayton a bigger share of the pizza because someone (us ) would get a smaller share if the pie doent’s grow.

      More to come…..

  4. So, what would “fair” look like? If some counties wish to provide more funding to their schools should that be prohibited?

    Between state, county and federal funding school boards have considerable discretion to allocate the $13k per student they receive, don’t they?