With all of the attack ads running on TV this election season, Georgians have no doubt had their fill of pessimism and negativity.
For that reason, it’s encouraging to report there has actually been some good news this fall for public school students: nearly two-thirds of the local school systems are now able to keep their classrooms open for 180 days of instruction during the academic year, as was once required by state law.
That reverses a depressing trend that started more than a decade ago and continued through the first three years of Gov. Nathan Deal’s administration.
During that period, the formula funding provided in the state budget to local school systems was reduced each year as legislators tried to balance the budget. The combined amount of these “austerity cuts” over the past 10 years now runs at about $8.4 billion.
After the great recession of 2008-09 and the resulting economic downturn, local school boards had a difficult time dealing with the cutbacks in state funds. Many of them, especially in rural counties, had to dismiss teachers and eliminate classroom days to keep from going bankrupt. Some systems cut more than 30 days from the school calendar.
During the 2011-12 school year, according to data from the state Department of Education, only 60 of Georgia’s 180 school systems provided a full 180 days of classroom instruction. That number declined to 56 systems for 2012-13 and 57 systems in 2013-14.
When you cut the number of days that students are in the classroom and reduce the number of their teachers, you cannot expect positive results. We were reminded of that recently when the latest release of SAT exam scores showed the average score for Georgia students had slipped to 52 points below the national average.
During this year’s General Assembly session, with the governor and incumbent lawmakers facing a reelection campaign, Deal proposed adding back $314 million in formula funding for local schools. The Legislature agreed and put the money into the current state budget.
The extra money did not completely reverse the reductions in formula funding for local schools, but it helped.
For the current school year, nearly two-thirds of the local systems (119 out of 180) have scheduled 180 instructional days on their academic calendars.
“It’s hard to say anything for certain without surveying all of the superintendents, but it seems apparent that the major factor in the uptick in systems adopting a full calendar of instructional days this year was the additional money put into QBE (formula funding),” said Matt Cardoza, a spokesman for the Department of Education.
“Districts have more money on hand and they seem to have used that to add instructional days, which we applaud,” Cardoza said.
Of those districts that still have shorter school calendars, a majority of them scheduled at least 170 instructional days for their students.
The systems that reduced their calendars to 160-169 instructional days were Butts, Cook, Franklin, Murray, Pike, Toombs and Walton counties.
The counties that reduced the number of instructional days below the 160-day level were Wilcox, Stewart, Webster, Haralson and Chattooga.
Education funding has been a contentious issue in the governor’s race between Deal and his Democratic challenger, state Sen. Jason Carter.
Deal says this year’s increase in funding is evidence of his support for public schools.
“We’re doing, I think, extraordinarily well in terms of funding K-12 education,” Deal said during a recent debate with his opponent.
Carter says Georgia also should have put additional money into education during Deal’s first three years, when more than two-thirds of the local systems were forced to cut the number of classroom days.
“Education has to be our priority every single year, and not just in an election year,” Carter said in that same debate.
Voters will soon be able to choose which candidate’s approach to education funding they prefer, which is at it should be.
What matters is that Georgia’s students are doing better than they were last year, because more of them attend schools that are able to keep their classrooms open for 180 days.
When you see the positive impact that increased state funding has had for local school systems, it makes you wish every year was an election year.
Tom Crawford is editor of The Georgia Report, an Internet news service at gareport.com that reports on state government and politics. He can be reached email@example.com.