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Ga. Lawmakers Ponder Adding Poverty as Factor in Overhaul of State School Funding Formula


Ross Williams

Mason Goodwin, a recent graduate of Atlanta Public Schools, told a Senate committee Friday that securing his diploma seemed to be more of a challenge for him than some of his classmates who live in different ZIP codes.

Goodwin said he comes from a lower-income, single-parent family, and he was one of several Georgia Youth Justice Coalition activists who came to the Capitol to urge lawmakers to provide extra funding for students living in poverty.

“Students that came from wealthier families were the ones that had resources to go into college ready classes, and to achieve academically,” Goodwin said. “Many low-income students like myself had to work instead of focusing on school, we didn’t have the same amount of time that we could put into classes as higher-income students. And most of us came from broken household situations like myself, we didn’t have access to counselors, we didn’t have support to handle those mental situations while also having to focus academically.”

Georgia is one of only six states that does not allocate specific state funds to help educate students living in poverty.

Lawmakers discussed removing the state from that list during the first meeting of a Senate study committee aimed at reviewing the way the state pays to teach its 1.6 million public school students.

The Quality Basic Education Act which created the formula used to dole out the money was signed in 1985, and it could be due for an update, said Senate Majority Leader Mike Dugan, chair of the Senate Study Committee to Review Educational Funding Mechanisms.

“The way we educate our children has changed in that time period,” the Carrollton Republican said. “And what this committee is to look at is, are we allocating the resources to the areas of education that are most appropriate today, and I’m just using some of these as an example. Like school counselors, that was a little different 40 years ago, than it is today, addressing mental health needs within the schools.”

School counselors are funded at a rate of one for every 450 students in Georgia, while the recommended ratio is one for every 250 students.

Supporters of changing the formula also hope to boost funding for programs like student transportation. Filling up and maintaining a fleet of school buses costs much more than it did in the 1980s, but local school leaders say they are stuck with limited money because of the outdated formula.

This is not the first time lawmakers have taken a crack at altering QBE, but previous attempts met strong resistance.

The QBE formula provides a set amount of money per student depending on their grade level and participation in programs like gifted and special education. Poverty advocates say also considering the family’s income could help direct resources to kids who need them the most.

Dugan asked Georgia Department of Education budget director Jon Cooper about how other states weigh poverty in their school funding formulas.

“Those that are in the poverty level are going to have a lower probability of their community being able to supplement their educational programs significantly, because if most of the students in that area are in a state of poverty, it’s probably further reaching than that particular school, right?” Dugan said. “So I’m interested in seeing the weighting that you’re talking about.”

Sen. Nan Orrock of Atlanta, the committee’s sole Democrat, expressed support for increasing funds for children living in poverty.

“It’s my firm conviction that kids from that background, with that poverty status, really have a better shot at succeeding, if there are more services funded and provided for them,” she said.

Sen. Lindsey Tippins, a Cobb County Republican who has focused on education issues during his legislative career, seemed more circumspect.

Before the state can consider adding a poverty weight, it will need to examine which schools receive money through Title I and decide how to get an accurate count of how many students in a district are living in poverty, he said.

“There’s an awful lot of areas to look at. QBE is difficult to understand,” he said. “But you have so many different varying conditions in the state of Georgia, I don’t think a simple formula is going to fairly address the vast differences in needs throughout the state. I’m not saying that QBE does not need to be looked at, the weights don’t need to be, I’m not saying they don’t need to be looked at, maybe they need to be adjusted. But I don’t think a cutting of the pie where everybody gets the same size piece, that’s not going to work in the state of Georgia. There’s a reason QBE’s complicated, because education in Georgia is complicated.”

Most states that give extra weight to children living in poverty use participation in free or reduced lunch to determine a student’s eligibility, but some are switching to other measures, including participation in other federal benefit programs or distributing supplemental income forms to families, said Chris Duncombe, senior policy analyst at Education Commission of the States.

Of those that participate, 22 states fund students dealing with poverty with a flat rate, which ranges from $190 per student to $7,272 per student.

The committee is scheduled to have two more meetings. The first is set for Sept. 16 at Savannah State University, and the second is scheduled for Oct. 21 at Columbus State University.

“We’re going to have several of these, and we’re going to have conversations outside of these meetings where we start putting something together,” Dugan said. “The goal is to properly align the assets with the resources to best educate our youth in the state of Georgia and set them up for success.”

This story was written by Ross Williams, a reporter at the Georgia Recorder, where this story first appeared.